Real People. Stihl People.

Rural Missouri Magazine


Frank and Susie Baker's backyard is for the birds

by Jim McCarty

Frank Baker's efforts to build a better purple martin house led to this design made from PVC pipe. The design is easy to clean by opening both ends and pushing the old nest out when the birds head south.

Visit Frank and Susie Baker’s home near Mayview and it won’t take long to discover this place is for the birds. First there’s the old piece of wire and two poles that go nowhere. Frank left this old electrical service up so his pets have a place to roost. Then there’s the battered old elm tree that most folks would have targeted for mercy killing. It lives for one purpose: purple martins line their nests with its leaves.

Then there are the two apartment complexes Frank built for the birds. One is so big it takes four poles to hold it up. It has 128 rooms, 32 on each side, built in removable boxes.

The other is made from 24 pieces of 8-inch plastic pipe. It represents the latest evolution in Frank’s quest for the perfect purple martin house.

“We’ve been purple martin landlords for about 25 years,” says Frank, a member of West Central Electric Cooperative. “When you get bit by the bug you’ve had it. We are purple martin nuts for sure.”

Frank constructs purple martin houses at his home near Mayview.

Frank still remembers when a co-worker told him of his evenings spent watching birds from his back porch. Frank told Susie he thought bird watching was the dumbest hobby he’d ever heard of.
One day Frank paid his friend a visit to see what the fuss was about. When he left he went straight home and built his first purple martin house, a pint-sized replica of the garden sheds Frank used to build.

Purple martins, members of the swallow family, are revered for their insatiable appetite for mosquitoes. But Frank and Susie love them for their acrobatic antics and beautiful song.

Over the years Frank moved the martin houses closer to his deck so that he could better observe them. He says they don’t really like being too close to human activity. “But once you have them established you almost can’t run them off.”

While many people would like to get purple martins established at their homes, Frank says few people do the job right. “Most people put up a pole and forget about it and then wonder why they don’t have birds. They don’t have time to do all the work.”

With that in mind Frank built a series of houses with the idea of reducing the workload. Purple martins are picky birds. They want to build new nests each year. So in the fall, when the birds leave, “landlords” like Frank must remove each nest and clean the box.

This purple martin "apartment" has 128 rooms.

He says commercial bird houses make this task difficult. Martins use mud for their nests and this makes them stick to the box. Often martin houses are placed on poles that make getting the house down impossible.

Leaving it up invites other birds, like starlings, to take over the nest. Frank quickly discovered how much work is involved after his first season with martins.

“He used a welding rod with a hook on the end to clean them,” says Susie. “He was standing on a ladder pulling stuff out and got a snake.”

Frank thought the snake was a hose until it moved. Then he jumped off the ladder — and set out to design a better bird house.

His efforts led to the huge structure with peaked roof mounted to four poles. With the nests built in removable boxes, Frank figured he could take them down and clean them inside. But the boxes proved time consuming to clean. There had to be a better way.

Driving down the interstate one day Frank passed a truck hauling pipe. Seeing that load of pipe gave him an idea. In his workshop he set to work to design a set of houses made from pipe. He cut the pipe into 12-inch lengths. This size keeps the martins away from predators like owls.

Frank and Susie Baker

On each end he put a hinged door made from scrap plastic. This lets him push the old nests out the other end. He fabricated a floor with angles that match the curved walls of the pipe. Then he fitted a round door to cover the opening so the nests could be closed when the martins migrate. He drills holes in the pipe bottom so rain won’t flood the nests.

Susie added one final touch. She guessed the martins would be stressed from the intense heat that would build up inside the houses during the summer. So she suggested putting pipe fittings on the back door to serve as a vent.

The new system worked so well that Frank keeps adding more nests, bolting them to the ones already in place. He plans to add nine more this year and continue adding to it until he has room for 100 martin families.

In a typical year his backyard will be home to hundreds of martins, so many that they stop traffic on the service road in front of his house and even draw attention from nearby Interstate 70.

He’s also building a 6-unit pipe apartment for his son. “Three apartments is plenty for the first year,” Frank says. “I’ve never heard of anyone getting more than two pair in their first year.”

He says martins like to come back to the same nest each year. To attract them to a new site you have to wait for birds who looked for last year’s house but found it gone.

Baker says he hopes to have 100 purple martin houses made from PVC pipe in place at his home by next year.

“It’s not near too late to put up a house,” he says. “The first year you get martins it is usually late in the season.”

He says his first pair of martins were so desperate for housing they looked the house over and started moving mud the same day.

This year cold weather kept the food supply away and the martins are slow in arriving. Normally purple martins arrive in March or April. Frank says to leave houses up at least until June in the hopes of attracting a new colony.

Purple martins depend on humans for their nesting sites. For more information you can call the Bakers at (660) 237-4392 or visit the Purple Martin Conservation Society Web site at www.purplemartin.org.

Rural Missouri December 2014
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