We've all heard about those dark corners of the Internet, where peddlars of pornography, hate speech, and cheap pharmaceuticals abound. To these I add my own cautionary tale, wherein I became ensnared in the Purple Martin Web Ring.
First, some background. Purple Martins, actually more black than purple, are the largest members of the swallow family. While most birds, like us country folk, demand a sizeable buffer zone between themselves and their neighbors, Purple Martins nest in colonies. Long before there were condos in these parts PM's were rooming together in old trees and river banks. Then the Europeans showed up and pretty much destroyed those habitats. Now the only place around here you'll find Purple Martins is in a Purple Martin house. You've seen these, they look like doll houses on flagpoles. You find them on old farmsteads because farmers believed a Purple Martin would daily eat its weight in insects (an exaggeration, it turns out). A hundred years ago, putting up a Martin house was like installing a bug zapper.
Well, I'm a sucker for old farm stuff so I had to have a Purple Martin house. But where to find one? On the Internet, of course. Before long I was wading through every website, chat room, and message board about Purple Martins, which wasn't difficult because they're all linked together in what is evocatively named “The Purple Martin Web Ring” (there are thousands of web rings about any number of subjects, but somehow the word “Purple” combined with “Web” and “Ring” makes me think of old dime novels).
I quickly learned that getting Purple Martins wasn't simply a matter of putting up a house and watching them move in. No, you have to meet some very specific site requirements to attract these picky birds. More importantly, you have to “maintain the environment,” a nice way of saying you have to do constant battle with all the other birds that will want to move into your swanky new digs.
This wasn't the case a hundred years ago, before the invasive species—specifically the European Starlings and House Sparrows—took over. How they got here is a long and bizarre story in itself, but suffice it to say that in the late 1800's some fool from Brooklyn, in tribute to the Bard, decided to release into Central Park every bird Shakespeare ever mentioned (this is where my nextdoor neighbor shakes his head and says, “City people”). These newcomers did such a good job of adapting to their new environment that they pushed most of their competitors (including PM's) completely out of the picture. Which is why European Starlings and House Sparrows, unlike native songbirds, are not protected (most naturalists would prefer they were all blown to kingdom come).
Okay, enough background, here's the picture I want you to imagine. A hundred yards behind my house, atop a 20-foot steel pole, is a sparkling white state-of-the-art aluminum Purple Martin house, newly imported from Texas. On its roof are two decoys, designed to give the impression to passing “scouts” that this is the perfect place to relocate. Another such lure is the boombox on my back porch with the timer set to play the “dawnsong” every morning at 4:00, which is supposed to attract any PM's within earshot. So much for the carrot. As for the stick, the PM house moves up and down on the pole so I can check it daily and make sure the wrong birds haven't nested there. More proactively, I have purchased a high-powered pellet rifle (an oxymoron if ever there was one), which now lays on a bed by a window with an unobstructed view of the PM house, giving our guest room a vague echo of the Texas Book Depository. I am now ready to do battle for my Purple Martins.
Long story short, I woke every morning that summer to the sound of pre-recorded (though never live) Purple Martins. When I wasn't endlessly clearing the sparrow and starling nests from the PM house, I was fruitlessly taking potshots at them (Spencer's Rule of Physics: it is impossible to hit a sparrow with a pellet gun from 100 yards). I never saw one Purple Martin in all that time, aside from all those digital images of them frolicking on the Internet, of course. Finally I called the president of the county's largest birdwatchers organization (should have done this first) and told her what I'd been up to. I could hear her chuckling before I even finished the story. “Lotsa luck,” she croaked. “Last year we had one Purple Martin sighting in the whole county! Year before that, zero !”
“Hey, that's a hundred percent increase!” I said, still deep in denial. But the writing was on the wall, the only birds I was going to be landlord to were those stinking sparrows. If I lived closer to the Hudson or had an active colony nearby maybe I'd get martins. But not here.
I went back to the web ring one last time and placed a want ad. “For sale: Brand new PM house, clean, except for a few dents from pellet gun.” Then I went to my computer's “Favorites” menu, clicked on the “Purple Martin Web Ring” bookmark and hit “send to trash.”
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