The Purple Martin Society, NA


Occasionally, The Scout Report feels strongly enough to offer editorials in The Scout Report on some martin related subjects.


By Rick Cruz
Vice-President of The Purple Martin Society

Many times we hear that martin house manufacturers trash the use of gourds as Purple Martin housing. What a load of purple propaganda! Do martin landlords really believe a manufacturer of aluminum martin houses would really endorse any other type of housing? It really makes me angry that some self-proclaimed experts do not examine the so-called facts before completely debasing something that has the potential to be just as effective as aluminum housing.

Supposedly, there is no advantage to using gourds over modern aluminum housing today. I beg to differ! The properly prepared gourd with a side access entrance hole for landlords may be more advantageous than aluminum housing. This type of gourd housing has been developed by Andrew Troyer of Pennsylvania, who is also a manufacturer of martin-related products.

Mr. Troyer came up with the idea of making a gourd as easily accessible as an aluminum house. Up until a few years ago, you could not access a gourd for pest control, nest checks, or cleanouts. The accessibility was only through the birds’ entrance hole. By using a 4" hole saw, some silicone, small wood or sheer metal screws, and the neck and lid of a plastic jar, or lightweight PVC piping, your gourd is now serviceable. The addition of a small crescent aluminum hood over the entrance hole offers protection from sun and rain. A small PVC elbow inserted into the top offers more than adequate ventilation. It can also be capped early in the season to keep them warmer. A good coat of primer and white elastomeric paint will keep a gourd plenty cool in the hot summer sun. Once properly prepared and mounted on any type of winch system, they perform as well or better than aluminum housing. I have prepared gourds for myself and for others and I can personally attest to the fact that it takes less time to prepare five extra large gourds that assembling a Trio-Grandpa martin house. I do confess that I already had all the parts pre-prepared, as well as having had all of the necessary tools and supplies readily available.

Now, let's compare natural gourds to aluminum housing and see how bad gourds really are!

1) Gourds offer no protection whatsoever from predators.

Properly hung, a swaying gourd makes a difficult perch for foraging owls. Owls are not like parrots. Have you ever seen a parrot hang from a swinging perch by one leg? Owls cannot access a gourd as easily as they can a 6" cube. Think about it? An 8" bird, nesting in a 6" compartment, not to mention both male and female, or even a martin family inside. Why do you think owl guards were invented? Without a pole guard, aluminum housing is just as susceptible to climbing predators as gourds are.

2) Gourds deteriorate and need a lot of maintenance.

Properly treated (copper sulfate) and painted gourds should last longer than the wood on your house. By cleaning out the old nests and storing them out of the elements for the off-season, gourds can last for many years.

Have you ever refurbished an old aluminum house that has been exposed to the elements for two to five years? Well, I have, and it is not pretty. All of the steel screws and acorn nuts are rusted from moisture and uric acid in the martin feces. I have had to cut them out with side cutters, The paint does fade, and some of the aluminum gets pitted and holey. The only way prevent this, is to clean them out at the end of the season, then bust your butt removing the house from the pole, and put the house away for the winter. When it comes down to it, both gourds and aluminum houses will deteriorate without proper maintenance. It is just a matter of time.

3) Gourds are fragile, especially in high winds, so they must be secured.

So are aluminum housings!! How many aluminum houses escape extensive damage after a tremendous wind storm that sends the pole crashing to the ground? Unfortunately, this does happen and it is expensive to fix. No matter how hard you try to bang that smashed aluminum back into place, it just does not fit right again. As for gourds that are ?quot; to ?quot; thick, they can take quite a bang. I have dropped plenty onto a cement floor and watched in horror as they bounce, expecting to find them crack beyond repair. I have been amazed to find them unscathed. It amazes me how well they take the impact. I would be lying if none cracked, but it tends to be the thin-shelled ones which should not be used anyway. Properly hung gourds swing in the direction of the wind. Centrifugal force holds the eggs in place, the same way water stays in a bucket when swung just like a swing in the wind. So, do not worry about cracked eggs, unless high winds blow down your pole.

4) Gourds only hold one martin family..\

I sure hope so! When hung 4"-12" away from each other, martins have more personal space. This lessens the territorial squabbles that occur on aluminum martin houses. Have you ever noticed how the center holes of 12-compartment aluminum typically remain unoccupied? Typically, this size house is at capacity with 6-8 pairs--two pairs per floor,at most, and on opposite ends of the house. The martins in those compartments tend to beat the daylights out of any other martin that tries to claim that center compartment. What do you think they make porch dividers? The porch dividers function like blinders on a horse. Each martin can not see his immediate neighbor, so their natural territorial aggression is lessened. In nature, martins nest in loose colonies, preferring each others’ company, but not breathing down each others neck. Modern aluminum housing has intensified male aggression, and quite possibly mass forced-copulation, resulting in injured or dead, females.

5) Gourds have no porches or guard rail. to prevent nestling fallouts:
Martins do not need porches. They are just man-made inventions for our viewing pleasure. Do you think martins would have survived for thousands of years if their young were prematurely leaping to their death from a woodpecker hole!? Martins have specially adapted tail feathers that allow them to prop themselves vertically just like a woodpecker. They are truly beautiful displaying this posture at the entrance of a gourd. Besides that, aluminum housing encourages nestling fallouts for several reasons. Four nestlings, crowded together in mid July in a 6" cube. Hot! Hot! Hot! "Let's climb out and get some air. Boy, if I can climb out of the heat, I think I can climb over a 1" or 2" guard rail." We read about martin jumpers from aluminum housing.  Truth is, if it is hot or buggy enough, martin nestlings can launch themselves from gourds, woodpecker holes, and even aluminum housing. They just have an easier time from the one inch rise from a typical aluminum martin house door.

6) Gourds are porous, so they have areas that harbor parasites.

Sure they do! So do the feathers of the martin itself! And, so do the crevices and crannies in between all those pieces of aluminum! Martin parasites are small and numerous. They live on the bird and their breeding cycle coincides with that of the martin. So, just when young birds hatch, so do the baby mites, lice, and fleas. Do you really think tiny parasites and their eggs completely disappear in an aluminum house? If proper neat cleanouts are performed routinely or with the use of an artificial nest, parasites will be reduced to a minimum, in both gourd and aluminum houses alike.

7) Gourds get too hot. Aluminum stays cool.

One hundred degrees is 100 ?no matter where you are!! Aluminum is a good conductor of heat. That is why cookware is made out of aluminum. In that kind of heat, what difference does it make? A good thick gourd has insulating qualities, plus, being painted white, it reflects a good portion of heat. With the added PVC ventilation port, and being larger that 6" square, you can bet the air circulation is better in a gourd than the standard aluminum house. Those holes in various parts of an aluminum house offer ventilation, but, how much does it circulate evenly? Do the top floors get hotter than the lower ones? The roof and roof attic are not insulated. So, how much heat do these houses really deflect or absorb? I do not know the answer to that, do you? Plus, consider that you have the combined body heat of many nestlings radiating out to each other. A martin’s temperature is higher than 100? Adding that to the comfort factor, I think I'd jump too!

8) Gourds offer no deterrence to European Starlings and House Sparrows.

Not true! The swaying action of gourds tends to discourage starling and sparrow useage. Notice that I said tends. If gourds are used in conjunction with aluminum housing, House Sparrows and starlings will go in the house most of the time. They will take the house, given the choice. Studies from the PMCA have proved this. In five years of providing martin housing, I have never had one single starling or House Sparrow attempt to nest in a gourd. I wish I could not say that about aluminum housing. On the other hand, I have seen both species nest in gourds elsewhere, but only on occasion. I have also seen both species readily nest in shiny 6" starling-resistant aluminum houses. One good thing about aluminum housing though, there are sparrow traps available that attach to the compartments for sparrow removal.

But , the starlings! They are definitely a more worthy opponent. Starlings do not like aluminum housing! Hogwash! Some would want you to believe starlings do not like shiny aluminum compartments, so they do not nest in them. True, they will not nest in them, but, it is because they require a cavity larger than a 6" cube. They do not care if you make a 17" compartment out of mirrors, starlings will move right in. That 6" cube may prevent most of them from nesting, but it does not stop them from going inside and wreaking havoc. Starlings going in a martin house in the middle of the nesting season does not have good intentions. He is performing his own version of genocide, destroying martin eggs, pecking nestlings to death, and even killing the defending parents. What to do? Starling-resistant holes. You can easily put them on your gourds--half-moon or slotted hole shapes. Gourd landlords do. And, yes, martins use them and starlings do not usually get in them. If this is good for martins, why don't the main metal martin house manufacturers develop such a house, or at least, doors to eliminate the starling threat forever! We all know the answer to that question!

God Bless America!!

As for sparrow control with gourds, there is, thus far, no manufactured trap available. I am sure that will change soon. There are ways to remove them, but that is a subject for another day.
The use of a modern gourd system offers the same advantages of aluminum housing, especially it used together. Think of this, every martin entering the continental United States from the Gulf of Mexico makes landfall in the southern states. Here, gourds have been used traditionally since Native Americans used them several hundred years ago. Doesn't it stand to reason that most martins have seen, if not roosted, one night in a gourd on it’s long journey north? Do not tell me they don't recognize this as a nesting cavity. There are many landlords that tried attracting martins for years with aluminum housing with no success. I should know. I have tried aluminum houses but they brought me nothing but sad, lonely springs, year often year. Two of my colleagues at the PMS also had no luck until they updated their current aluminum housing with gourds.

It is down right discouraging when someone with a high-profile in the martin interest uses their  influence to discredit something that could benefit both martins and landlords--and worse yet, at the same time they are doing this, they promote his products to these same hapless people. The reason people provide housing for Purple Martins should be for the martins’ benefit--to allow them to flourish and remain off the endangered species list." Gourds also have a place in this high goal. If they are properly prepared and maintained in a modern system, there is no reason why they should not be part of the goal. They come from nature.

Gourds! Grow them! Get them! Use them!

In conclusion, it seems to me that birds, coming from nature would much prefer to build their homes to rear their young in something that has also come from nature, not something that has come from a machine shop!

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