June 27, 2003
A Community of People-Watchers
By MICHAEL CREWDSON and MARGARET MITTELBACH
On the southern shore of Staten Island on the edge of Lemon Creek Park,
a cluster of 21 buildings defy architectural classification. Some are
multifamily, triple-decker designs of salt-whitened wood that resemble
New England seafarers' homes. Others are postmodern, single-family
units built of plastic in the shape of gourds. All have excellent views
of the lapping waters of Prince's Bay, because they are built high atop
poles. But the most striking thing about these dwellings is that they
are the size of dollhouses. Oh, and the residents are birds.
Every spring for half a century, a group of purple martins have flown
into New York City to make their summer homes by the shore. These large
members of the swallow family fly in from Brazil (where they roost in
city parks around São Paulo) and are welcomed by human caretakers with
whom they have an unusually involved relationship.
On a recent Friday evening, we visited the Lemon Creek martin colony
and found Gloria Deppe, 77, standing beneath an octagonal birdhouse and
placing broken eggshells on a low platform. "The females need calcium,"
she explained. "My friend saves me all her eggshells from the whole
Ms. Deppe, a Staten Island resident and retired schoolteacher, has been
the de facto building manager and concierge at the martin colony for 27
years. In the summer she's out almost every evening chasing away pesky
starlings and house sparrows, two nonnative species that frequently try
to evict the martins. She supervises a crew of volunteers who repair
houses damaged by storms, and she makes sure the interiors are swept
clean before the martins arrive for the summer.
"These birds are very finicky about where they choose to make their
nests," she said. "If I don't keep the houses shipshape, they'll reject
them. But once they're all settled in, they seem to love people.
They're not afraid at all." Dog-walkers and strollers stopped to chat
with Ms. Deppe as she waited for the martins to return for the night.
"Just before dusk is the best time to see them," she advised.
"Everyone's welcome as long as you don't throw rocks."
An hour before sunset as the sky began to turn pink over Prince's Bay,
Ms. Deppe showed us our first martins, a pair performing a dazzling
series of aerial acrobatics, swooping two to four stories over our
heads and in and around their cottages. "That's the male," said Ms.
Deppe, pointing at an eight-inch-high bird with a slightly forked tail
that, at first, appeared all-black. When its plumage caught the light,
it gleamed an iridescent purple-blue. The female, with a dark back and
gray belly, was less flashy. They called to each other, making a
melodious gurgling sound.
As more martins arrived after a hard day of catching insects on the
wing, they circled high in the air or perched on telephone lines nearby
before coming in for a landing on their front porches, where they
chirped sociably with one another.
"I whistle so they know me — I don't know if they do, but I do it
anyway," Ms. Deppe said as she walked within a few feet of the perching
birds. The starlings scattered, but the martins stayed put.
Martins are unusual because over centuries of association with people
they have largely given up their natural nest sites in tree cavities.
These days martins are not known to nest anywhere in eastern North
America except in houses built by humans. Even then they rarely nest in
a birdhouse unless it is within 100 feet of a human habitation.
"Somehow the martins have learned that they're safer with people
nearby," Ms. Deppe said, shooing away a few more starlings. It turns
out that being with humans, even New Yorkers, has survival value,
because predators and competitors are more likely to stay at bay.
The Lemon Creek colony is part of a network of martin communities. The
Purple Martin Conservation Association in Edinboro, Pa., monitors the
progress of many such martin sites, provides construction plans and
sells prefab houses to martin landlords, or martineers, as they're
sometimes called. Across the United States and Canada, the association
has registered thousands of colonies. But Lemon Creek and a nearby
colony on Arden Avenue are the only ones in New York City.
"The Lemon Creek colony was started in 1953," Ms. Deppe said. "We're
celebrating our 50th anniversary this year." The colony was founded by
Howard Cleaves, a pioneer in wildlife photography, a popular lecturer
on bird life and a prominent member of the Section of Natural History
at the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences, where Ms. Deppe is
a longtime member.
"Mr. Cleaves lived right over here on Purdy Place," said Ms. Deppe,
pulling out an aging ledger that documents the martins' comings and
goings. "In 1953 he attracted six pairs and they raised chicks
successfully. The next year he had 14, the next year 21. The martins
have been coming to Lemon Creek ever since. They're extremely faithful
to nest sites." She said that up to 80 pairs of birds had been at the
Ms. Deppe, who took over the job when Mr. Cleaves was in his late 80's,
now manages the colony with the help of other members who climb ladders
to clean out the birdhouses several times a season and maintain a
collection of Cleaves memorabilia that is displayed periodically at the
Staten Island Institute.
"Poor Mr. Cleaves," Ms. Deppe said. "There are so many things he never
learned about the birds. He thought it was a great mystery where the
martins copulate. He had never seen it. Since then, it's been
discovered that they copulate inside their houses. And the sparrows go
right on the porch. Cleaves saw the sparrows copulating, but he never
saw the martins."
None of the birdhouses have mirrored ceilings or waterbeds, but these
are the basic specifications: studio apartments at least six inches
long, high and wide. Their doorways are usually portholes about two
inches in diameter, large enough for martins but too small for owls and
other predators. Their houses should be elevated 10 to 15 feet above
ground and be in an open space at least 40 feet from trees. Houses
should be painted white to reflect the heat and keep the martins cool.
And there's usually a perching porch from which the male can proclaim
his love and defend his territory.
Beyond that, architectural styles vary, with new ones always coming
into vogue. Troyer houses — named for their designer, Andrew Troyer, an
Amish martineer in Pennsylvania — are tall, narrow Gothic-Revival
affairs with steeply peaked roofs, slitlike entryways and larger,
longer apartments. And the drooping pods, though made of polyethylene,
are a neo-Choctaw design, based on the historical Native American
practice of making houses for the martins from hollowed-out gourds.
At Lemon Creek some of the styles most popular with the martins are
simple square plywood cottages, many with personal touches. One modest,
two-story metal apartment is labeled the Leary's Rest Home and was
built by John Leary, a member of the neighboring Princess Bay Boatmen's
Association, which docks its boats on Lemon Creek right behind the
colony. Another two-story house with wrap-around porches has a cutout
of two Scottie dogs touching noses; it was designed by Hank Dowding, a
Staten Island resident.
The last surviving Cleaves house, a weather-beaten shack (circa 1968)
of white-painted wood with an aluminum roof, was pulled down just last
year and is being refurbished for display at the Staten Island
The day we visited the colony, Ms. Deppe met with David Burg, president
of Wild Metro, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting nature in
urban areas. He had stopped by with a prototype for a mahogany and
Sitka spruce martin house. (The wood was donated by Steinway & Sons.)
Ms. Deppe made several comments on the design and it was sent back for
modifications to Riker's Island, where martin houses are being built by
inmates in the prison wood shop to expand the Lemon Creek colony.
"I love this project, because martins nest in apartment buildings just
like so many New Yorkers do," Mr. Burg said. "In the future we'd like
to design martin houses to look like landmarked city buildings. Could
you imagine a Chrysler building for purple martins?"
Construction and design, however, are just the beginning, Ms. Deppe
said. Being in charge of the martin colony requires constant vigilance.
In fall after the martins fly back to Brazil, the entry holes of the
houses have to be blocked with plastic cups so that starlings and
sparrows won't set up house while the martins are away. Then when the
martins return, Ms. Deppe, like any high-end real estate agent, has to
observe the behavior of her potential tenants carefully. "If I see a
martin interested in a house, I get a long pole out of my car and I
pull out the plastic cup," she said.
How does she know if they're interested? "They fly around a house. They
sit on the roof. They sit on the porches. They look to get in and say,
`Why can't I get in here?' So then I come along with my pole and pull
out the cup. But the minute I do, somebody else moves in. See that
starling? He shouldn't be in there. He's guarding it so the martins
can't get in. It's a housing war."
The starlings seem to have set up a squat in the Troyer house, which is
the most expensive real estate in the colony, made of $500 in donated
cedar wood. As Ms. Deppe looked on disapprovingly, these avian
interlopers fluffed out their feathers and squawked obnoxiously from
Ms. Deppe doesn't want to set a bad example for children ("even adults
wouldn't understand," she added), but she does pack a water pistol. If
she sees a starling harassing a martin or trying to drive it from its
nest, she gives the starling a good squirt.
Lest anyone feel too much compassion for the starlings, they are one of
the most populous birds in the United States — and one of the most
aggressive. House sparrows aren't much better and have even killed
martins to get their apartments. Ms. Deppe discovered the evidence of
one such birdicide this spring when she was cleaning the houses. A
sparrow nest had been built right on top of a martin nest that already
contained two martins. She found the martins' bodies buried beneath the
sparrows' pile of twigs.
Bird bullies aren't the only problem at the colony, and this year has
been particularly tough. The martins' 5,000-mile migration from Brazil
is grueling, and many birds don't survive it. This year when they
arrived, an unusually rainy spring grounded the birds and prevented
them from hunting for winged insects. More than two dozen purple
martins died of starvation, Ms. Deppe said.
On the advice of the Purple Martin Conservation Association, she bought
live crickets and tossed them into the air, hoping to give the hungry
martins a protein boost. "The birds ignored me," she said. "Now I have
a cricket under my refrigerator and a cricket under the recliner in the
living room. They escaped from the bag I was keeping them in."
The Lemon Creek colony has faced tough times before. In 1991 raccoons
raided the birdhouses, massacring martin chicks and terrorizing the
adults. New security systems were installed in the form of "pole
guards" — dome-shaped light fixtures that Ms. Deppe found at a local
junkyard — that keep four-legged predators from climbing up. "I went
from 72 pairs down to 23 after the raccoons attacked," she said. "But
we were up to 42 nesting pairs again last year. I just hope the
surviving birds do O.K. this year."
"You have to come back later in July," she added. "The babies poke
their heads out of the holes, and you can see the parents bringing back
insects and swooping right into the houses."
As the street lamps came on and boats headed out of Lemon Creek for
night fishing, Ms. Deppe considered wrapping up the evening vigil. Most
of the martins had gone in for the night, disappearing through their
little doorways. "It's their bedtime now," she said.
Just then, a lone martin darted off into the night. "Where's he going?"
she wondered. She waited to see if he would return and after a few
minutes, he flew back with something in his mouth. "I guess he just
wanted a bedtime snack."
Birding-Aus is on the Web at
To unsubscribe from this mailing list, send the message
"unsubscribe birding-aus" (no quotes, no Subject line)