Gene Stratton-Porter wrote that there were three birds that she could depend on every spring to return to the Limberlost cabin and nest in the yard. They were: robins, bluebirds and purple martins.
Gene said that the purple martins liked to perch on the windmill in their backyard. She had placed a martin complex for eight families on the windmill and enjoyed watching the martins all summer long. She had “the most wonderful grouping of martins, circling the mill or perching.” If you are a big fan, as I am, of purple martins, you can imagine the happy chattering sounds of the birds while they were in flight or perched around the Limberlost Cabin. Reading Gene’s comments about this amazing bird, you know without a doubt that she enjoyed her “pets of the windmill.” Gene wrote that she enjoyed illustrating and painting the birds from the back porch of the Limberlost Cabin.
Unfortunately, Gene could not photograph the birds on the windmill due to the harsh lighting. However, while on a 20 foot ladder, she was able to photograph the birds sitting on the telephone wires or perched on top of a dead wild cherry tree near their nesting boxes. She would also get on the ladder and use a wire to clean out the nesting boxes of any materials that house sparrows would put in there until they gave up nest building. House sparrows, a bird for which Gene had very little sympathy, is known to harass native birds, like martins and bluebirds, taking over their nesting sites.
In late February 1905, she wrote it was the earliest that a purple martin “scout” had arrived from its wintering grounds. He looked exhausted after his long journey. When she spoke with a tenant on the farm that the Porters owned a couple miles west of Geneva, he noted that a purple martin arrived on the same day there. Writing that purple martin flocks return between May 1st and 15th every year, this is an indication of just how much Gene liked to study bird life. I certainly share Gene’s excitement with spring migration, and I can relate to her record-keeping. Gene would be pleased to know that purple martins have a robust population around Geneva in the summer.
For the first time this past summer of 2016, I was able to watch and photograph young martins. A local Amish farmer, John Hilty, whose tidy farm is located just east of Geneva, invited Randy Lehman and myself to see his 40 + pairs of nesting martins. Our friend, Sherrida Woodley, was here from Cheney Washington and able to accompany us. There was happy chatter in the air all over his yard and flying in and out of the bird house complex. It is an experience that I will not forget. John is what Gene would have called one of her “faithful.” John said after sharing spring and summer with the martins, their departure in the fall for their wintering grounds, always results in a very quiet September which takes some getting used to---a sentiment I can imagine Gene would feel just as keenly.
If you would like to read more about Gene and her experiences with birds, you could read What I Have Done with Birds and Friends in Feathers. The story of the purple martins was in both. Friends in Feathers is available at the Friends of the Limberlost Gift Shop.