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Winging it

Purple martins seeking a rest stop on their route to Brazil find resistance in OKC.

Mark Beutler July 19th, 2012

Purple martins have been a staple in our grandmothers’ backyards for generations. The birds have a long history with humans and are generally regarded as a welcome addition to any landscape. But thousands of the birds have descended on downtown Oklahoma City in the past several weeks, and are finding their surroundings anything but hospitable.

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Their first stop was in the clusters of trees at the Oklahoma City National Memorial.

“It’s been very disturbing to go out and see visitors holding brochures over their heads to avoid the bird droppings,” said Kari Watkins, executive director of the OKC National Memorial & Museum. “We are not trying to hurt [the birds]. We love nature, but this is becoming a very sensitive issue for us.”

She said the memorial has filed all the necessary paperwork and applied for all the necessary permits to work on removing the birds.

“But the animal and bird enthusiasts have accused us of deplorable acts,” Watkins said. “The more reasonable we tried to be, the less they tried to listen. We have a multimillion dollar asset here. It’s a priceless asset, not just for our city but for the nation.

Purple martins settle in for the night.
Credit: Mark Hancock

“We do not want to disturb the birds as they migrate, but at the same time this memorial is intended to be a peaceful place for reflection. The noise and droppings from hundreds of thousands of birds is not conducive to that atmosphere.”

The bigger crux of the problem, according to Watkins, is the ongoing construction in downtown Oklahoma City and the environmental impact it’s had on wildlife.

Oklahoma City government spokeswoman Kristy Yager agrees. While downtown has long had issues with birds, she said this is the first time they’ve been a problem for the Oklahoma City National Memorial.

“It could be due to the relocation of Interstate 40,” said Yager. “This is the first year without the old interstate, so that could be part of the reason why the birds chose the memorial.”

Birds, birds, birds

Oklahoma Wildlife Services has worked with Watkins in attempting to move the purple martins from the memorial site.

“The chairs at the memorial are made of bronze,” said Kevin Grant, director of the wildlife services. “A few bird droppings are natural and to be expected, but this was massive droppings that stained the metal. Power washing helped, but the chairs still show streaks of discoloration from the caustic droppings.”

Bird droppings coat the area around an auto-bank downtown.
Credit: Mark Hancock


Grant said they are still in “monitor mode,” and the birds have gone to another location. That new home, however, appears to be a Bank of Oklahoma branch nearby, but the birds aren’t finding the bank officials to be more welcoming.

“We have thousands of birds in our auto-bank location,” said Andrea Myers, a spokeswoman for Bank of Oklahoma. “We have installed audio devices to move them more humanely out of our facility. It is our hope they find a safer place that is more appropriate.”

The audio devices are not unlike the loud speakers installed at Penn Square Mall several years ago to discourage thousands of nesting starlings, according to Myers.

“These devices have proven successful without harming the birds, so we hope this solves the problem,” she said.

This week, Bank of Oklahoma officials launched a concerted effort to remove the birds, noting that the sizable amount of bird droppings and feathers can pose a serious health risk.

'Art in the sky'

But some nature enthusiasts say the “roosts” should actually be encouraged and could become a popular attraction.

“I’ve made the pilgrimage to watch a number of martin roosts, and it’s a magical thing,” said Julie Zickefoose, an Ohio-based author and national blogger who has taken an interest in the local spectacle. “The martins circle overhead as darkness falls, chirping and chortling. It’s like art in the sky. At some unknown signal — perhaps a specific waning of light in the sky — they come together in a massive tornadic funnel and literally drop out of the sky and into the roost trees. It is so worth coming out to watch.”

The nightly roost downtown usually begins around 8:30 p.m. and is over by 9:30 p.m., as the birds settle in for the night. Bird experts say the purple martins are expected to migrate to Brazil in September.
Zickefoose said that cities such as Tulsa and Austin, Texas, have turned similar spectacles into festive events that draw spectators.

Oklahoma City National Memorial
Credit: Mark Hancock

“I hope Oklahoma City will … learn to appreciate the martins for the incredible asset they are,” she said. “It is worth remembering every single one of these birds was raised in someone’s backyard.

"They need people to provide housing to help them reproduce successfully, and now they desperately need the businesspeople of Oklahoma City to show them some tolerance as they rest up for the great flight to Brazil.”

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07.21.2012 at 07:25 Reply

Purple martins are amazing birds.  I've been a purple martin "landlord" for over 20 years and every spring my husband and I look forward to the birds' return from Brazil.  They nest in our yard and we greatly enjoy watching them for four months, from early April to early August.

Purple Martins are the largest North American swallow.  Maybe OKC could somehow provide a haven for them, sort of like the legendary swallows of San Juan Capistrano in California.  Create and market a tourist industry around the birds' arrival, and people will "flock" to see them.  San Juan Capistrano no longer has its swallows - the birds disappeared after a renovation project at the mission there, and the town is trying to attract them back by playing recordings of the swallows chirping.


07.21.2012 at 11:39 Reply

I see the birds as a reminder of life continuing at the memorial. I am an Oklahoman who lives away but still has ties there, and a few people affected by the bombing so I sort of see the "problem". But honestly, human beings have built and destroyed so much wild space, birds and other wildlife have no place left to go. Take a cue from Austin, TX who turned their bat population into a major tourist industry. Don't harm or shush the birds away, live in peace with them and find a way to make this a good thing. They have no agenda, they're just looking for shelter for a short while.