For the “martin man of Avoca,” purple martins have been a passion for more than six decades, building his first martin house as a youngster.
Ed Garrison started his life-long pursuit while a youngster in Omaha. “I got interested in purple martins when I was about 8 years old, and I will be 70 in November,” he said. “My mother’s cousin was a bird enthusiast. He taught and showed me very many things about all birds. I built my first martin house at about the same time. It was a three-pound coffee can turned upside down on a wide board, I cut a 2" square hole in it and believe it or not I got a pair of martins! With martins established next door that made it a lot easier.”
His first martin house in Avoca was put in place in the spring of 1999, after Ed and his wife Diane, moved in January to the town in western Iowa.
“At that time there wasn't ten pair of martins in the whole town, but I did manage to get two pair that first year, and the numbers have been growing ever since.”
Garrison has “helped other people in town to start martin colonies to the extent that our little town of Avoca produced close to 400 pair this year.”
Photo courtesy of Ed Garrison.
Avoca has “11 martin colonies and most of them are multiple housing included six gourd racks with 32 - 40 gourds per rack,” Garrison said. He has answered a lot of questions from people interested in these birds, although he has not presented any formal programs.
In 2007 and 2008, the houses at the Garrison residence had over 110 pair, but there is housing available for 170 pair.
“My home sits on a slope and I have a large patio that I can sit and watch the martins doing their aerial ballet and socializing. The month of May is especially entertaining as the martins are busy building nests and finding mates. “
He also makes recommendations to help people get their own nesting colony. “I will even go to their home and show them the best place to put up a martin house. During the martin season I have a lot of people stop by just to watch the martins. A favorite destination of the nesting season is the place of some good friends in town, to watch the birds as he has a large colony.”
Garrison’s decades of experience provide the basis for some basic recommendations to attract and help martins thrive.
“The easiest martin houses to manage and take care of are the metal or plastic houses,” Garrison explained in an email. “However, I don't care for them for several reasons. If a martin has a choice, they will take to wood or gourds first. The large purple martin gourds will produce more young than the wood or metal housing. The wood houses are next. The metal and plastic produce the least young. This information also comes from the University of Pennsylvania. I also believe anybody building or buying a purple martin house should get one with starling resistant holes, as starlings can destroy a martin colony. Sparrows are not as bad, but if you have sparrow problems, trap them and clean their nest out every other day or so and stop feeding them when it gets close to the martins arrival time,” which is usually about mid- to late-March. "All starling and sparrow populations should be dealt with by that time."
The “martin man of Avoca” said he “would be more than glad to have them stop by and watch the birds or ask questions, or to show them around town to the other martin colonies if they should so wish. Also, about five miles north of Avoca there is a blue heron colony which some would find interesting, but may be a little difficult to get to. If anyone wants to stop by my home on South Maple Street – the first house north of the high school - and martin colony,” it is on the west side of the Pottawattamie County fairgrounds.
“Purple martins are the most enjoyable, interesting, entertaining birds we have in Iowa,” Garrison said.