More Than A Birdhouse

In rural Alabama, a haven for purple martins generations in the making

Photo: Cary Norton

Purple martins roost in the nesting gourds that David Shaddix grows, dries, hollows, and hang

A few days before Valentine’s Day, David Shaddix starts to get antsy. He wakes before dawn, walks outside, leans into the dark, and listens. He searches the brightening sky for a sign that this will be his favorite day of the year—the day the purple martins come home.

The first scouts trickle in from South America and move into the avian neighborhoods he builds atop tall poles. Some look like miniature apartments, but most are clusters of hollowed-out gourds. Soon the sky is filled with song, and David Shaddix is happy.

Martin houses are as much a part of the Southern landscape as dogwoods and magnolias. To the uninitiated, they’re nostalgic icons found on nearly every country road. But to those who know, they’re more than birdhouses—they’re a symbol of the long relationship between these migratory birds and the humans on whom they depend.

The purple martin (Progne subis) is a gregarious, chirpy, broad-chested swallow that feeds in midair on insects. The birds winter in the Amazon basin and return every spring to mate and spend their summers nesting in North America. They’re secondary cavity nesters, preferring old woodpecker holes or crooks of trees in open fields near ponds or rivers. Evicted by European starlings and house sparrows, two invasive species introduced to America in the late 1800s, purple martins now rely on houses created by human “landlords.”

Photo: Cary Norton

A vintage Audubon Society card.

“They are completely dependent on us now,” says Shaddix, who spent nearly a decade coaxing a colony that now consists of 135 nesting pairs to his twenty-five-acre patch of Shelby County, Alabama.

Shaddix first learned about being a purple martin landlord from his grandfather, with whom he spent summers, as a boy, poking around in a North Alabama garden. Retired from the textile mills, Pawpaw wore overalls and was “particular” about everything, from planting corn to growing beefsteak tomatoes as big as softballs.

Pawpaw was just as particular about his martins. Every year, he watched the sky eagerly for the return of his flock. He could almost mark his calendar by the day they reappeared. They filled his garden with a cheerful racket, swooping and gliding like acrobats. By summer, he’d count the heads of babies peering out of the gourds.

For Shaddix, the urge to start a colony of his own didn’t arise until many years later, he says, when he bought land to start a wholesale nursery. “It just popped in my head: I need martins.”

Photo: Cary Norton

Shaddix scanning the sky for birds.

He started with a store-bought aluminum house. It remained vacant. The second year, he waited and hoped. Again, no martins came. Year three, he started to really worry. Where were the purple martins?

It turns out that if you build it, they may not come. And if they do come, they may not stay. And if they don’t stay, they probably won’t come back.

Fortunately, martin devotees are a welcoming bunch, a tribe who are as helpful as they are obsessive. They taught Shaddix that purple martins are as particular as Pawpaw. His housing compartments, he learned, were too small. They were too close to the forest. (“Martins need some space to take off and get away from hawks,” he says.) The birds like gourds—painted white, to prevent overheating. If another bird moves in first, well, try again next year.

“Unless somebody takes you under their wing and tells you all these particulars, it’s hard to be successful,” Shaddix says. “But once you have martins, you want everyone else to have martins.”

Years four and five, he applied what he’d learned. Still, no martins. He did, however, attract a smart, pretty redhead who loved the outdoors as much as he did. Mary Beth Burner (now Shaddix) watched him stand outside before first light on cool early spring mornings, thrusting his phone to the sky and playing the “dawnsong,” a recording of the particular melody martins sing in the morning. (Experts say this is one of the surest ways to attract them.) She watched him adjust the houses’ height and shoo away the bluebirds. But David loves bluebirds, too, so he built them their own houses.

“So he’s a landlord and a bouncer,” MaryBeth jokes.

Occasionally a scout would drop by, poke a head in, maybe hang around for the day. David would sit nearby, watching, hoping. But the guest never spent the night. That, the experts said, was the clincher: If they spend the night, they’re yours.

By year seven, Mary Beth could not bear to see David’s hope crushed yet again. On the night of her birthday—May 7—she blew out her candles and made a wish: Just give this guy two purple martins.

The next morning, he spotted them. The first pair had spent the night, and Mary Beth watched David glow with pride. They named the birds George and Martha. As promised, others followed. That first year, David had two couples, who spent June and July fledging their young and swooping over the farm pond to catch dragonflies on the wing.

Photo: Cary Norton

Shaddix’s home and nursery.

Later that year, David married Mary Beth under a towering pine. Their wedding invitations featured a bouquet of peonies (her favorite) and a pair of purple martins.

The next spring, George and Martha came back—and brought twenty-one other couples. Years passed. The colony grew. David bought more gourds.

One year Shaddix found Pawpaw’s gourd seeds, stashed in a threadbare pillowcase in the back of his uncle’s freezer. They were decades old but still viable. He planted them, teased the shoots from the dirt, and hand pollinated the flowers with a Q-tip, as he had seen his grandfather do. Those seeds produced especially nice, big gourds. Shaddix grows them every year, dries them, hollows them out, and gives most of them away. “I took a neighbor of ours twelve gourds a week ago,” he says.

That neighbor lives a few miles down the road, on a piece of land where he grows and puts up corn and tomatoes, and makes spicy dill pickles. After helping him hang gourds, Shaddix gently coached him on the lessons it took him seven years to learn. “David’s driven over there in the morning to play the dawnsong,” Mary Beth says. “We’re talking serious devotion.”

The neighbor wanted to pay him. Shaddix waved away the money. (He did, however, accept some pickles.) He was happy for the chance to do what others had done for him. Landlords beget landlords. And that’s the only way this tradition can go on.