By Anne Chlovechok
Photos by Calvin Chester
Every spring, hundreds of Brazilian snow birds flock to their summer homes in Caldwell to raise their families and enjoy the fine dining the area offers.
Although not uncommon around the country during the summer months, their largest local community is on the property of Don Bridgman just outside of Caldwell. Bridgman and his good friend Dorothy Schott welcome the annual visitors, going so far as to build tiny homes for their convenience.
Bridgman’s Brazilian guests are purple martins, largest member of the swallow family and voracious consumers of mosquitos and other flying insects.
Bridgman, who grew up in the Florence area just north of Caldwell, has enjoyed observing and providing roof space for these exotic visitors since he was about 15.
“My neighbors in Florence had martin boxes,” he said. “And I decided I wanted to build one. So I built a 12 room box out of wood, but I didn’t have a pole to mount it on.”
Bridgman called on a friend with a Model A, and caught a ride up SR 821 to a wooded area where he cut a pole, and dragged it back down SR 821 (then SR 21) to set it in his yard to hold his martin box.
“I had two pair that first year,” he remembered. “Ever since, I’ve been hooked on martins.”
The purple martins arrive back in Caldwell promptly in the end of March each year, generally between the 20th and the 23rd, and leave for their winter home in Brazil about August 15.
To house them, Bridgman has constructed a veritable martin city on his property, including wooden houses, aluminum houses and houses made from synthetic and natural gourds.
When asked which the birds seem to prefer, he said they definitely like the gourds best, and don’t seem to discriminate between natural and man-made.
Bridgman’s largest martin house is his big martin hotel, boasting 308 holes. It measures four feet wide and five feet long, and hidden inside is a two by four foot space allowing Bridgman to move between the apartments to clean them out each fall and to do nest checks in the summer.
When the birds arrive in the spring, if the weather is still cold and there are no insects out yet, Bridgman purchases large quantities of crickets and “flips” them to his tenants.
“If the weather is bad and I see their wings drooping, I just put crickets on a big plastic spoon and flip them up into the air, and the birds catch them. There’s no problem feeding them, and that’s what I do if they can’t find insects.”
When the weather turns fine, the birds clear the insects out of the area. Bridgman said they like dragon flies, themselves fierce predators, so they crush their heads before feeding them to their babies so they don’t bite the helpless chicks.
Once the birds start setting up house, Bridgman does nest checks to see how many pairs are in residence. Males will build nests that don’t ultimately become homes for chicks, so in order to count a pair, Bridgman must see either a pair obviously living there, or eggs in the nest.
This summer, Bridgman has counted 187 nests with eggs or birds, making 187 pairs of martins in residence.
The parents will raise around 700 young martins on his property. “The noise and racket when the babies start hatching is considerable!” Bridgman said.
Both parents feed their babies, so all day long there are martins flying back and forth with insects for their young. “It’s a beautiful sight!” Bridgman said. “They’re very acrobatic!”
Interested in setting up your own purple martin condos and reducing the mosquito population around your own home? Bridgman will be happy to help. To get in touch with him, call The Journal and leave your name and number, and he’ll be in touch.
Meanwhile, a few facts about martin habitats: Purple martins like a lot of space. Bridgman recommends around 40 feet of space around their raised boxes, which most people set between 16-20 feet off the ground. They like open fields and airspace to allow them to zoom around.
Bridgman’s boxes are set 10 feet off the ground, but his birds are well-established and not as picky.
Bridgman said the biggest problem he has with his martin houses is keeping out starlings and sparrows, which not look for empty holes, but will destroy martin eggs. Bridgman recommends something called “Conley” entrances to martin houses; holes about 1.5 inches high by about three inches long. “It keeps bigger birds out,” he said.
Other than battling unwanted, would-be guests, he loses a few birds to predators such as owls and hawks. But for the most part, he and Dorothy keep the boxes clean, do an over clean-out in the fall, and sit back and enjoy the aerial show all summer long.
“We’d be tickled to death to help anyone get started with this,” Bridgman said. “About five to eight percent of last year’s babies, now sub-adults, come back to their original colony. They need a place to go!”
To talk to Bridgman about martins, call the Journal at 740-732-2341, and your phone number and name will be passed on to him. He promises to be in touch.
“Remember, all life is precious; all life is a gift from God,” Bridgman said. Observing the fascinating lives of the graceful martin is one of Bridgman’s greatest pleasures.