Violet songbirds swooped overhead last week as naturalist Jack Gulvin lowered a bird house suspended 12 feet in the sky. Once the house was at hip-level, Gulvin withdrew a bluish, minuscule purple martin hatchling from inside and examined it.
“This guy is about 9 days old,” Gulvin said. “You can tell because he just opened his eyes for the first time.”
In the palm of his hand lay a bird of the endangered purple martin species Gulvin has dedicated his life to for the past 23 years.
Gulvin first arrived at Chautauqua Institution after accepting a position in 1999 as the Bird, Tree & Garden Club’s naturalist. An avid bird watcher since his teenage years, Gulvin agreed to give purple martin talks regularly throughout the summer season while on a “birdathon expedition” with past BTG President Nancy Arnn.
The only issue was that Gulvin knew little about purple martins.
“Birders don’t usually pay much attention to purple martins,” Gulvin said. “All you have to do is drive to where there’s a martin colony. There’s no challenge. We usually focus on more interesting birds, so I never paid attention to martins, but in two weeks, I was going to have to give the purple martin talks.”
With the help of the Purple Martin Conservation Association in Erie, Pennsylvania, Gulvin began his career in educating Chautauquans about the birds.
Gulvin will give the first of four weekly Purple Martin Chats starting at 4:15 p.m. Thursday, June 30, at the purple martin houses located between Sports Club and the Miller Bell Tower. Attendees will learn about purple martin migration and feeding patterns, while also getting a chance to see the birds up close.
Purple martins are entirely dependent on humans to provide shelter and care during their reproductive months in the summer. Gulvin monitors the compartments on the grounds every five days until the nestlings fledge so he can clean parasites from their nests.
Migrating from São Paulo during late spring, purple martins like to mate and lay their eggs east of the Rocky Mountains due to the extended daylight hours that allow them to hunt for their babies’ food.
Female purple martins will lay one egg each day until her “clutch” is full, which usually takes five to seven eggs. Those eggs will hatch around 15 days after incubation, and fledge, or leave, the nest at around 26 days. The martins then return to Brazil, which is why the Purple Martin Chats are limited to the beginning of the season, between the hatching and the fledging.
Last year, Gulvin reported that while the number of eggs laid was down, the hatching rate had increased. The good weather and high occupancy rate of the martin houses this year indicate a promising season for the purple martins.
In between the chats, Gulvin is responsible for checking 102 purple martin homes on the grounds and in Westfield, New York. Most of these homes are built within a “T-14” housing system, which are Amish-made birdhouses specifically for purple martins.
Most of the purple martin houses on the grounds are located lakeside near Sports Club, or by an open field, like the Chautauqua Golf Club courses.
During his 20 years at the Institution, Gulvin’s chats have evolved greatly.
“The Chautauqua audiences here are quite savvy,” Gulvin said. “They do not like to be read to, and so I quickly abandoned my prepared scripts. Now what I do is just answer questions, and that usually covers everything.”
The biggest change Gulvin made in his chats was including a nest check. Seeing the baby birds in their nests is a crowd favorite, and originally resulted from a mistake in programming.
“The event started at 4:15 p.m., but programming said it was at 4 p.m.,” Gulvin said. “I was lowering the house to do my nest checks, and a crowd was already there. The people that were there were really interested, crowding around to see the birds and take photos.”
While Gulvin enjoys sharing his birding “war stories” with audiences, the naturalist equally loves to see the reactions of audience members while he holds the birds in his hands.
“Probably the No. 1 myth in America today is if you touch a baby bird, it’ll be rejected by the parents,” Gulvin said, cradling a 9-day-old martin with his hand. “I love when they can see me handling these baby birds with my bare hands, putting them back in and raising the house up, and then they can watch the parents come right back and keep on.”
If Gulvin still sees disbelief in the crowd after the demonstration, he will scoop the parasites from under the nests into a clear box for the audience to pass around. He says this displays the need for human care as, left unattended, such parasites would affect the hatchlings’ health.
“After these folks take a good look at all those squirming maggots, there’s never any more skepticism about the need to change the way you control the parasites,” Gulvin said. “Maggots are far more persuasive.”
Gulvin has dedicated his free time to helping purple martins in an unconventional way: recycling. He collects aluminum cans around Chautauqua and neighboring areas so he can return them for their deposits. Last year, he made $11,000 from these recyclables alone, donating $8,000 to the Purple Martin Conservation Association.
While the work istime-consuming and occasionally grueling, Gulvin still remains passionate about the conservation of purple martins.
“They’re loyal birds. They return to the same nest every year after migration,” Gulvin said, gazing upwards at the flock of martins. “Kind of like me with them.”