AKRON When it comes to humans and purple martins, one could say the two have history; one that goes back hundreds of years in fact.
"Over the years, the martins have figured out how to live near humans – it goes back to the Indians, they put up gourds for them," said Larry Hunter, co-founder with his wife, Judy, of the Portage Lakes Purple Martin Association at the 2017 Buckeye Martinfest on June 24 and Portage Lakes State Park.
As the birds were fed scrambled eggs – launched into the air by admiring fans and used as a nutritional supplement for the Martins’ during the vulnerable spring months when they migrate back to their summer homes in North America – dipped and soared overhead and in and out of the 38 gourd poles containing 229 nests, Hunter explained that the human-martin relationship has been a mutually beneficial one.
"Back in the 1950s, they used to use crop dusters on the Lakes, the bugs were so bad," Hunter said. The purple martins, which live entirely on flying insects, were as natural an insecticide as one could find.
Hunter’s personal relationship with the martins goes back about 47 years, when, as an assistant Boy Scout master, he and his troop built martin houses out of wood.
"We did everything wrong," he laughed. "We put the houses in back yards, under trees."
However, in 1998, a friend convinced Hunter that his property on the Lakes would make a perfect home for martins.
"We got tree swallows the first year," Hunter said of the project, which eventually attracted the desired residents and led to the formation of the 25-active-member Portage Lakes Purple Martin Association, a group whose membership soars to upwards of 100 volunteers at certain times of the year.
With a natural habitat that covers most of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains and north into Saskatchewan, Canada, the Portage Lakes purple martins leave Summit County in September, to winter in Bolivia and Brazil. They return to the Lakes as soon as January and on into April, with hatchlings arriving in late May and early June.
Purple martins were once in decline, but due in large part to the placement of the artificial nesting gourds, their numbers have bounced back. Each summer, tens of thousands of purple martins gather and roost at night on the waters of Nimisila Reservoir Metro Park in preparation for their migration.
The first Buckeye Martinfest was held in 2002. In 2014, at the urging of the Portage Lakes Purple Martin Association, Gov. John Kasich signed a bill to recognize the Portage Lakes area as the Purple Martin Capital of Ohio.
As visitors got to learn about the birds’ habitat, diet, and how the nesting gourds are designed – such as the wire perches atop the gourds, placed too closely together to keep away natural predators like Cooper’s hawks.
Visitors also got to hold the newest members of the Portage Lakes purple martin clan.
"We hear about it every year and we finally had time this year," said Akron resident, Josy DeWilde as she held a two-week old martin. "This is really amazing."
DeWilde attended the festival with her daughter, Barbara DeWilde, and grandson, Gabriel Arteno. And their wonderment, Hunter said, was precisely the point of it all.
"We just want to teach people about nature," he said.