- Captain Zach
The World's Largest Purple Martin Colony
When research for this project began, I came across an article about Johnson’s World’s Largest Purple Martin Colony in Rainsville, Alabama. I read about this Grandfather/Grandson duo, Joey & Jerrell Johnson, that had an established colony of, at the time, around 1,500 purple martin gourds on their property & had the goal of reaching 1,000 pairs of nesting martins. How wonderful to read about conservation as a hobby. As I read more & more into their colony, I discovered that they were hosting a big jamboree at the end of June for Purple Martin Landlords around the country to come & enjoy this feat that these two men had accomplished for this beloved species. Of course as soon as I found out about this, I immediately figured out a way to skip town for a few days.
Rainsville is located in northern Alabama about two hours south of Chattanooga, Tennessee. It’s a small mountain town with about 3 street lights, no alcohol, and every restaurant closes at 8pm; definitely out of the norm for a city slicker or even a suburbanite like me. However, everyone from Rainsville knows everyone, so if you get lost all you have to do is say you’re looking for the Johnson’s purple martin colony and you’ll be pointed in the right direction.
The road leading up to the colony is one of the coolest parts of this colony. You head a little outside of Rainsville and then find your way onto some backcountry roads where there’s nothing to see but farmlands & country homes, then all of a sudden you drive up a small hill and the colony appears. Imagine going to a hot air balloon festival and then miniaturize that. There were racks across what seem like acres of land all strewn
with white gourds providing a metropolis for birds. Walking around this place feels like walking the streets of New York City. The noise of the hustle & bustle can be deafening at times, if you’re standing still odds are you’re in someone’s way, the water’s pretty dirty, you have to occasionally dodge a car or two, and there’s crap everywhere. For martin-lovers, the bird crap everywhere doesn’t bother us because we all know too well what it’s like when our birds drop a “present” on us. Drivers enter by turning onto a road lined with windmills, Jerrell’s other love. One gets to see that windmills can be made out of just about any material, as I saw one where the blades of the device were made out of shovels. Transitioning from the Windmill Forest, your first taste at the enormity of the colony are a series of cables strung up towards the back of the colony. There are three sets of cables and the whole system stretches about a fifty yards. To the right, martins are flying to & from their summer homes. To the left, martins are bathing and drinking in the manmade pond that sits smack in the middle of the property. This place acts basically as a resort for Purple Martins kind of like what the Hamptons are to Northeasterners in the Summer. As you continue to drive, you’ll round the corner at the end of the cables & work your way through a maze of towers that, at the top, have converted satellite dishes that hold roughly 25 gourds beneath, and there’s 52 of them. Last count of gourds the Johnson’s took came out to be 2,209 compartments available for Purple Martins. You eventually come to a parking area at a garage where the Johnson’s host everyone for the Jamboree.
The Jamboree is a great event for Martin Landlords. There are set ups displaying all different types of gourds. Purple Martin landlording is similar to beekeeping in the sense that there’s a whole market of products that come from different manufacturers and provide their own benefit to the birds. People from Minnesota, Florida, South Carolina (Me), Virginia, Illinois, Kansas, Alabama, Texas, Georgia, and will convene at this colony to share their stories of years spent hosting martins. I met a couple people from Florida where one knew an old professor of mine from college & the other was close family friends with one of my classmates from my time at UF, something I never would’ve expected. There were guest speakers as well; Tim Green of the Cavity Nester Conservancy and Michael Bishop of the Northern Virginia Purple Martin Initiative spoke the first year I attended. This year I was invited back to speak about my Purple Martin tour business along with Tom Brake who invented the ChirpyNest compartment. A local food truck sold authentic Alabama Barbecue, but the kicker I wasn’t expecting was the Bluegrass Gospel Band that performed Sunday morning the last day of the event.
I got to interview Tim, Michael, Joey, & Jerrell and each interview brought in a fresh contribution that further aids in communicating the Martins’ need for human housing. One of the best parts of going to the Jamboree for me was receiving a message a week after the event from Michael & his wife expressing interest in coming on one of my tours. Low & behold, a month later I had them on the boat out at Bomb Island & he looked like a kid in a candy shop watching all the martins at the roost. Mike has since become one of the main benefactors of this project & his contributions allowed us to travel to & film in Arizona & Pennsylvania this summer.
Something that concerned me while I was there was the age range of everyone that attended was on average 50+. Keeping any tradition alive requires for experiences, knowledge, & skills to be passed on to younger generations. When you have a hobby that isn’t having that happen, then it just fades into cultural memory. The problem with the loss of this tradition, is that an entire species’ existence is dependent on people keeping it alive. I’m used to being the youngest adult in the crowd, although it was refreshing when I met a kid named Kyler who probably started college in the past couple weeks. People know me as “The Purple Martin Guy,” but none of my gourd racks have been colonized. Kyler on the other hand is 19 and is setting up colonies all across his community to conserve the species in his area. We got to talking and I was telling him what I’m doing as a filmmaker & tour operator, but I forgot to mention that I’m primarily a retail naturalist. He later told me he wanted to do what I do and that struck a chord with me. It hit me hard because I’ve always wanted to make a difference, but I constantly feel like I’m going nowhere working at my parents’ garden center. It was a humbling feeling as well as nod from the universe that I was in fact making that difference, at the very least serving as some kind of inspiration. Kyler, if you’re reading this, keep going after it man. You’ve got a bright conservation future ahead of you.
All in all, if you’re a bird lover, martin landlord, or a nature lover this is something worth experiencing. In 2018, the Johnson’s had 994 pairs of nesting martins at their colony and have definitely broken that record this year. It will be interesting to see in the years to come if research groups will start working with the Johnsons and band birds or even put satellite trackers on them. During the Fall migration, a roost will form up at the Johnson’s colony & the number of residents jumps from ~2500 birds to ~10,000. Attending the Jamboree is well worth the experience; you’ll come away with new friends, tricks to better manage your colony, and new stories of this El Dorado-esque place to tell your friends about.