Purple Martins antics and activities have been significantly noted in feature stories since about nine decades ago in Omaha, along the Missouri River in eastern Nebraska. Stories reported varied in the local newspapers, including the Omaha Bee and Omaha World-Herald, but these special bits of history convey how this species has been a part of the river city's history decades beyond any former personal recollection or interest.
Faithful Summertime Tenants Are These Families of Martins.
In July 1918, a contributor to the Bee, Ruth B. Whitney, conveyed how Miss Belle Ryan was the sole proprietor and manager of an apartment house with eight separate compartments, with '"seldom a vacancy" during the summer. The place she provided was a "way-up" affair. Friends and relatives of the feathered tribe moved in if the former residents did not partake of a vacancy, upon returning from their winter residence down south beyond the equator.
Tenants returned to Omaha, and took residence on the "apartment house." It was "a frame structure, securely fastened to the sill of a window" for an office in the fifth floor of city hall.
"'I consider it a great honor to have these birds make their home in my bird house,'" said Mrs. Ryan. "'They are very particular as to where they locate their homes, though I do not know just what are the requisites. A friend of mine place a martin house on her lawn, with trees and fountain near it, and everything else a bird could want, and introduced a martin family into it, but they refused to stay, yet here they remain year after year in this alley."
Young were raised at this martin house, and the birds' habit of eating bugs was noted in Whitney's article, and conveyed as a means of paying rent for their domicile.
"In payment for their apartments the martins furnish not only amusement but floods of beautiful and cheerful song. They have voices much like pleasant laughter, and their mellow notes may be heard at almost any time of day, echoing between the gray walls of city hall and Bee building."
The activities of the martins were appreciated by a number of people, according to the newspaper story.
"Many of the bird lovers of Omaha visit Miss Ryan's office and sit for hours near the windows watching the comedies and tragedies of bird life that are played out before them. The martins do not mind these visitors at all, but go on with their home keeping and baby raising affairs as calmly as if no one were present."
Dad and Mrs. Martin and Their Family Life.
Bird Happiness and Domesticity as Seen From the Fontenelle Window.
Beautiful Specimen of the Swallow Family in Douglas Street Domain.
These titles were from an article by Sandy Griswold. He described the birds and their antics in another of his Sunday columns. The following is a bit of what he mentioned in his writings as an Omaha sporting news man:
"Monday last, in the golden glow of eventide, I watched, from my window high up in the Fontenelle, a pair of purple martins giving their four awkward, half clothed little fledglings, their first instructions in the art of aerial navigation. They had all alighted, papa, momma and the four kiddies, on the topmost railing of the iron sign on the roof of the Strand picture theater. It was evidently their first time abroad, and while we did not know where they came from, we knew that it must have been from the martinry up under the northern eaves of the City Hall, where a colony of martins have spent the summer, with the exception of one year, ever since the erection of this stately old castle, for I have kept note of them with unremitting care every season."
The article continued, written in the distinctive manned of a sports writer unsurpassed for his use of words and means of presenting details in vivid prose enjoyed by a myriad of appreciative paper readers.
"Again the male bird sailed out into the open and as he swept in graceful curves around and over his timorous flock, they all set up a petulant clamor, and finally the old male suddenly dove and flicked the tip of his burnished wings in the very face of one of the babies, it tilted awkwardly forward, settled back, tilted again, and then launched its little form into space. Old daddy Martin saw it, and was quickly by its side, and so, did the mother, too, from the Brandeis roof, and while she also took to wing, she wisely left the pilotage to her liege lord. Down he curved, light as a zephyr, over the street, gamely followed by the youngster, down to within a few yards of the pavement itself. But this was too venturesome for the little one. He was too near the black asphaltum roadway, and the hurrying automobiles and pedestrians. The glare and blare and general movement disconcerted him, and appreciating his embarrassment the mother darted to his rescue. She checked him up short, and as he turned to rise, she mounted quickly above him and chirruped him up higher where he could see better and have more room.
"For quite a long time they sat there, looking down over the dizzy cornice to the animated thoroughfare below, finding the great nestling street, and the passing pedestrians and vehicles, and the glinting of the first lit electrics on the pavement, and the luminous facade of the theater and the new athletic club edifice, marvelously enthralling, if one could judge from their attitude and incessant little seepings of confidence and content. Suddenly, as by some intangible magician's wand, they were gone, and I felt it was up to their rookery under the eaves of the city hall, for it was time to go to bed."
The entirety of Griswold's writing about the martins, is, in this instance, readily available for perusal.
What is the Bird-Truth.
Miles Greenleaf, a relative newcomer on the scene as a writer about natural history found the martins were an interesting aspect for a story. When he wrote a bird editorial in June 1923, the basic premise was:
"As for the Purple Martins, we would fain belief that education has had something to do with their increasing numbers in and about Omaha. Up until a few years ago, Martin houses were very rare in Omaha, but now there are many of them, reared on their tall poles in folks' backyards. The martins apparently appreciate this service, and there are now hundreds of families resident here, where there used to be but three or four.
If there is a bigger or better bird house than this martin mansion, Mrs. W.F. White, 3617 Nebraska avenue, would like to be told about it. Her husband and a friend built it for her last winter.
"Such strange visitations and deprivations make the study of our birds tremendously interesting - to you!" Greenleaf said, using a writing style meant to illicit the interest of the readers and get them to personally relate to the birdly details, while using typographic emphasis to convey importance to his words.
Bird Inn - 112 Rooms, and It's Insured
A wife's request provided a prominent home for martins ready for their spring arrival in 1932 on Nebraska Avenue.
Starting in the autumn of 1931, F.W. White, superintendent of the Tenth Street postoffice, and "muscle man" Joe P. Thompson, a lodger in the White home, constructed a "gigantic martin house whose new copper roof glistens so that it may be seen for miles around. It is a veritable lighthouse."
The house was christened "Martins' Retreat."
"This martin residence has 112 rooms all ventilated and insulated against lightning. From each room leads smaller wires connecting with the main ground wire which runs deep down the telephone pole upon which the house is perched.
"'There isn't a nail in that house either,' said Mr. White proudly when the structure was finally anchored. 'Not a nail in it - but more than 2,000 screws, and it's made of selected white pine all through, with exception of copper roof and facings.'
"The house was built in seven sections on floors, and then assembled. Thompson, a plumber, made the copper roof and weather vane, and did all the metal work.
"Mrs. White insured the house for $400 against wind damage, for it weighs 650 pounds."
In addition to the martin house, more than 20 wren and bluebird houses were constructed.
Separate Apartments for the Martins
But Charlie and Florence of the City Hall Tribe, Don't Let Modern Ways Interfere with Rearing of Family.
Here are "Charlie" and "Florence" of the city hall martins, at the respective doors of their respective suites.
An unusual "apartment" was noted downtown in June, 1933. "Charlie" and "Florence" had separate "suites" in the brick facade of city hall.
"This unique bird home was established when some careless workman left out a couple of bricks in the alley wall of the hotel de ville. There is no communication between the two 'rooms,' and scarcely enough space to enable the two martins to turn around without going overboard.
"Yet 'Charlie' and 'Florence' seem to be very happy in their abbreviated semi-isolated marital apartments, and in the inner recesses of one of the rooms there seems to be an offspring, judging from the amount of food that is lugged."
The story continued with interesting details of other martins using a nearby house.
"These two martins are probably part of the famous colony that has been living in a bird-house outside the school superintendent's offices on the sixth floor for years on end. This martin house has become too small for the increasing colony - hence the private little 'penthouse' on the alley."
The famous duo were said to go out for breakfast at 8:30 o'clock, luncheon at 11 o'clock and "have an early dinner about 4 p.m."
"Tuesday, during their absence, a squab - a young mongrel pigeon - blundered into 'Florence's' bedroom - and then was there a how-de-do! 'Charlie' raised the birdland cry of 'Hey, Rube!' and in a jiffy all the city hall martins were at the rescue work. The racket was fierce and the poor squab was finally tumbled out of his soft spot. He tried to climb the side of the city hall like King Kong, but the martin tribe beat him off."
Prize-Winning Bird House
First prize bird house, built by Jack Moy, Y.M.C.A. It tilts up as shown for cleaning.
When the Omaha Bee announced the winner of their contest for the best bird-house in spring 1936, the winner was a teen. "After several hours of deliberation," judges announced 15 cash winners. "The judges admittedly showed a marked preference for the 'rustic' rather than 'ornamental' types."
Jack Moy won the $25 first prize for a "martin house built in the Y manual training shop," where he lived.
"Simply, but strongly constructed, the judges pointed out it has a vacuum space between each compartment, air vents on all sides and in the cupola, drain grooves and a hinge top to permit easy cleaning."
Omaha's Martin Legacy
These interesting bits convey some of the first known history for purple martins in urbane Omaha.
The legacy of these birds in the city has reborn with the discovery of the magnificent roost present in midtown, first found in 2008 and now still occurring in just a few trees they prefer for their own known reasons, in the urban landscape amidst buildings in a completely city scene.