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Purple martins stir memories for local bird enthusiasts

A purple martin, drangonfly in beak, prepares to enter a gourd-style martin house with the day's meal. Martins subsist mainly on insects, particularly mosquitoes, so they're popular birds to have around. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)1 / 4
Don Wilkins says only the male martins carry leaves into the nests. Unlike other species, martins don't appear to follow traditional color patterns with the males more brilliantly colored than the females. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)2 / 4
Don Wilkins retired from his job at General Electric 23 years ago and started colonizing purple martins, gradually attracting the largest population in the state. He has more than 100 breeding pairs on Long lake. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)3 / 4
A quintet of baby martins. above, is camouflaged inside a gourd nest built of twigs, leaves and other earthy materials. Many of the nests were occupied with eggs or newly hatched chicks. Below, the colony is visible in the background of Monika Wilkins' garden. Don volunteers at Hafner's Greenhouse and usually gets a few perennials in return. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)4 / 4

Nostalgia for an iridescent indigo bird that nearly became extinct is the impetus for the movement to restore the purple martin population.

"My grandma had them 60 years ago," said Daryl Lindstrom, a junior high school science teacher from Pine River who has joined a small army determined to repopulate the birds. Lindstrom belongs to the East Central Minnesota Purple Martin Recovery Program. "She thought she'd never live to see them again in her lifetime," he said of his grandmother.

Lindstrom and others traded their stories of wheedling businesses, organizations and corporations out of dollars to establish martin colonies throughout the state on public lands where people can enjoy them.

Nearly 75 martin devotees came together at the 7th Annual Minnesota MartinFest in Park Rapids last weekend. They swapped best practices and fundraising strategies.

MartinFest was held at the lake home of the man regarded as the poster child (if a retiree can be referred to as a "child") of martin recovery.

Don Wilkins retired 23 years ago as an engineer for General Electric in New York. He returned to Minnesota, where he became a purple martin landlord on Long Lake.

"There weren't many jobs around here for chemists," he said. He'd grown up with martins.

"They're a nice bird to have around because their diet is essentially insects," he said at the shoreline overlooking his collection of whimsical homes, where he boasts an occupancy rate that would be the envy of any landlord.

"I have around 100 nesting pairs now," he said. "I have 117 cavities, with 106 occupied. I put them out gradually as the birds arrive."

A swooping population of the birds flies in and out of the nesting holes, feeding themselves as they incubate their eggs.

"I have an excellent hatch rate," Wilkins says modestly. "The average is five eggs, but I've seen nests with anywhere from three to eight eggs. If it's less than four, I get disappointed. This is the largest colony in the state."

His homes are mounted in groups of three, four and more on metal poles hovering above the water. All the houses will be removed in the fall, cleaned and put away for the winter.

"It's rubber glove time," he says of the mess he scoops out of the houses.

"It's absolutely filthy."

He attributes his success to enabling the birds to have "an open flight pattern." He removed 41 trees between his lake home and the waterfront so the martins can fly in and out of the colony from high in the sky.

They begin arriving in mid-April. If the ice isn't off the lake, he has some homes perched high above the lakeshore that are permanently mounted on wood poles.

'They clean out of the land houses and move over the water as soon as I get those houses up," he said.

The houses, built of wood, PVC pipe and a new design of gourds that are starling and sparrow-proof, are all stenciled with designs and numbers.

Wilkins borrowed his wife's quilting stencil cutter and made patterns he transferred to the houses: moose, pine trees, cats, a howling coyote, oak leaves, mushrooms and other designs adorn the homes.

"I use them for identification," he said. "I can direct you to each house" by its pattern. The result is a charming village of eclectically painted, tiny homes.

Do the martins know they're shacked up in the oak leaf condos, or the cat complex? Well, during early spring, there's midair mayhem, Wilkins said.

"Until they get settled we've got some fighting" and downy donnybrooks, he said. Then they all settle down into a nest and give peace a chance.

Wilkins worries that the nation's landscape is inundated with purple martin houses - everybody's got one.

"And that's the problem," he pointed out. "All those houses are raising starlings and sparrows."

His wooded acreage keeps those birds away.

"If you put them on a river, use the right kinds of houses and keep the riff raff away, they'll come almost immediately," he said of his efforts to teach locals how to attract martins.

"I think I could raise them in shoeboxes," he said.

For the groupies assembled on his lawn taking his tips as the gospel, he's doing something they all want to emulate.

"I grew up with martins on the farm," said one attendee. "We've been trying for years to get them back."

Wilkins recently followed a truck driver down the highway, and when the man pulled into a service station, Wilkins followed. He liked what he saw in the truck bed.

"He had a bunch of 6-inch PVC pipe in six foot lengths," Wilkins said. "He gave me two pieces."

The pipe was used to support runway lights at airports.

Wilkins thinks he's on to the latest design concept in congregate martin living.

"Next year lots of them will be nesting in sewer pipe," he said.

The Wilkins home gets lots of curious visitors. One conference attendee came from Manitoba.

"They're all welcome," Wilkins said. "People are just fanatic about these birds. My neighbors love them because they don't have any mosquitos."