This story was written by my sister and published in Florida Wildlife, May 1990. Just thought I'd share it!
“The Martin House”
Sixteen years ago my dad built a red and white barn 15 feet in the air.
My family has a weekend retreat in Lake Placid. What started out as a small mobile home was transformed by my father into a very cozy two-bedroom cottage.
Amidst the construction, my grandmother mail-ordered plans for a purple martin birdhouse. Very logical actually – she loves bird watching, so wishing to attract them came naturally. Some folks say that purple martins (Progne subis) eat mosquitoes. Lake Placid, being in the heart of central Florida’s lake country, is blessed with an abundance of mosquitoes. Therefore: one birdhouse plus mosquitoes equals many birds to watch.
Gram declared, “I’m perfectly capable of building it myself. I do have a way with carpentry, you know.” But Dad wouldn’t hear of it. So, before long, there arrived the grandest of martin homes – it was white, barn-style with a red roof and red-trimmed “doors”. The lodgings for eight families included north-south exposure with attic entrances. The roof was hinged for repair and cleaning access. ‘Twas a sight to behold as no finer accommodations could be seen in Highlands County. Even the interior was painted antique white.
It wasn’t enough that a creosote utility pole be moved from one 3-foot-deep hole to another. The half inch plywood house had to be raised atop manually. This, Dad did with the help of telephone company climbing spikes and rope. Then, he precariously raised the 30 pound structure overhead. At one point the house got away from Dad, nearly pulling him from the pole. The spikes slipped. Spread-eagle, he crashed against the pole, yelling obscenities in a soprano voice. Thankfully, he was saved by the belt.
There, at last, for all the world to rejoice over, wonder at, and admire, stood the most beautiful martin house, complete with its hinged roof.
That was 16 years ago. Today the martin house still towers over the yard. The wild hickories shade it from the harsh summer sun. In the fall, leaves carpet the ground beneath.
Oh yes, the martins came – and ate mosquitoes, I guess. I sure couldn’t swear to it with a few thousand skeeters buzzing around. And when the martins moved on, sparrows moved arrived, then squirrels, and then martins again with their peculiar gurgling song. It was an annual event and each tenant came with its own ideas of what the perfect home should be. The sparrows packed it up with grass and twigs for their cheeping chicks. Once their lease ran out, a gray squirrel family took residence. Hey made improvements by clearing out the sparrows’ discarded furnishings. They fancied themselves carpenters. You could hear them gnawing at the entrances, enlarging and reshaping. The, tragedy struck the pair of young squirrels, as one took a fatal fall one night, leaving a lonely male gray. I think he finally moved down the street to a more social singles residence.
For several months the martin house stood empty until the final insult arrived – wasps. Surely this was the end. Could demolition be far behind? “No way are you getting me up there to clean that thing, hinged roof or not,” my husband protested bullishly.
But with the advent of cold weather, even the wasps disappeared.
Neighborhood residents come and go. Last spring, the sparrows returned to the first floor with the usual clutter and endless chattering. Having been led to believe that martins were strict segregationists, I was surprised to see them once again, soaring above the red roof. But, then they perched lightly on the second level; their winter stay in Brazil at an end – home again.
The two families appeared to get along with amiable indifference as each modified their quarters, although sometimes the martins would dive at the sparrows for lingering too long on the ledge. The martins dutifully replaced wilting leaves of their nests with fresh and the sparrows jammed in straw, string and yarn.
Now it’s winter again, and the martin house stands empty, lonely. The grandeur has faded. The once-bright-red roof is now a dull clay-brown. The white sides are sun-parched, chipped, and mildew-stained. The birdhouse sits a bit crooked up there having stoically weathered summer thunderstorms, winter squalls and a hurricane or two. I miss the squirrel’s little black nose peeking from the attic, its bright eyes keen to our comings and goings. It’s lonely without the constantly tittering sparrows and the graceful aerial ballet of the sleek purple martins. We’ve thought about taking the old house down, but I don’t think so. It’s always been home, off and on again, to somebody. And to me, it’s as much a part of this place as the hickory trees, orange groves, sudden summer storms, and the beautiful lakes where we fish, swim, dream and remember.
And just last weekend as I swept cobwebs from the cottage eaves, I heard a familiar chatter of prospective bushy-tailed tenants. ~ The End
copyright MB, 1990