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A gourd to call home

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EAGLE POINT — Amateur ornithologists are hoping a collection of plastic gourds strung in a protected field will lure a rare swallow off a nearby wire to a new home where it’s less likely to get the stuffing kicked out of it.

Local Audubon Society members have created nesting gourds for purple martins on the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy’s Rogue River Preserve, similar to the vast condominium communities that dominate nesting habitat in the Eastern United States.

A decidedly non-badass bird incapable of out-competing other birds such as woodpeckers for nesting snags and cavities, the few known purple martins in Jackson County nest mainly in little holes atop power poles like the ones across the road from the preserve near Highway 234.

Purple martins, which are a federal species of concern and listed as sensitive-critical under state rules, are due back around April 1 from their South American winter hiatus, and gourd-hanger Jon Deason hopes to see his new tenants soon.

“As part of their desire to colonize, they’re always searching,” says Deason, an Audubon member running the operation. “They’ve been searching here for years.”

Research shows that the if-you-hang-it-they-will-come approach works in Eastern states, where artificial nesting efforts that date back more than 200 years now house all but 5 percent of purple martins there.

“We don’t have enough nesting habitat,” says Kristi Mergenthaler, SOLC’s stewardship coordinator. “They need a little help.”

The popularity of providing nesting condominiums for purple martins lies at the feet of J.L. Wade, an Illinois businessman and purple martin advocate who also made a fortune selling purple martin nesting poles under the guise that the birds ate 2,000 mosquitoes a day.

In 1962, the town of Griggsville, Illinois, wanted to rid itself of summer mosquito infestations and turned to Wade, an antenna manufacturer who pitched attracting purple martins as mosquito assassins and started producing pole houses to lure them to town. Wade really ran with it. Described as the P.T. Barnum of birds, he began pitching purple martins throughout the East as a way to mosquito-proof your yard, and, by the way, here are some nesting poles you can buy.

But according to The Nature Conservancy, purple martins eat just about anything except mosquitoes, with larger flying insects such as beetles, flies, wasps and bees filling out most of their diet.

Still, thanks to the Wade phenomenon, the vast majority of purple martins in the East now rely on human-made homes.

Not so in the West, where ornithologists say the purple martin’s numbers are declining.

Most of the few local populations nest in power poles, indicating there’s probably too much competition for tree cavities from starlings, house sparrows and other birds, Mergenthaler says.

The plastic gourds designed for purple martins have smallish openings that keep most competing birds out, Mergenthaler says.

Using designs employed elsewhere, Deason erected a metal pole with a series of six metal rods on a cylinder attached to cables. Deason and Mergenthaler attached the plastic gourds to the rods and raised them like they were hoisting a flag.

The gourds will be lowered and checked regularly, Deason says.

The local Audubon society erected a similar structure several years ago at the state-run Denman Wildlife Area in White City, but it didn’t attract any purple martins, Mergenthaler says.

Deason has been trying to lure purple martins the past three years without success.

“I have never seen a purple martin in my life,” Deason says. “It’s not on my life list.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com.

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A purple martin rests on a gourd. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service