Friday, June 11, 2010

For the Birds

Cycling around Hoyt Lake yesterday, I spied a bird feasting on the swarms of small insects that I was trying to avoid inhaling:  a purple martin.  Of course, this brought to mind the "martin houses" that sit atop the conservatory of the Martin House Complex.  A popular anecdote has Frank Lloyd Wright designing these curious limestone sculptures as martin houses (for the Martin House - get it?), his architectonic rendition of the familiar, whitewashed communal housing that many bird lovers set up for martins.  

With this association introduced, two questions inevitably come to mind:  first, why are these "martin houses" not successful at attracting nesting purple martins?  Second, if not functional houses for martins, what is their significance to the Martin House Complex?

Looking into the first question, one finds that there is virtually nothing about the design, materials or placement of Wright's "martin houses" that would make them attractive to the species in question.  In terms of design, the cavities in the structures are not compartmentalized appropriately.  Martins like to live in small colonies, but they prefer a boxy-ness antithetical to Wright's Prairie principles (the open plan is manifest even here!).  The openings in these martin houses are much too large; martins prefer snug, round front doors.  Next, the materials are all wrong:  martin houses should be wood, and whitewashed to reflect sunlight and keep the interiors - and the residents - cooler.  Finally, the placement of Wright's four martin houses atop the conservatory puts them too close to human habitation, too easily accessible to predators, too close to trees, and too far from an open water source.  For all these reasons, discriminating martins in the market for "real estate" would quickly look elsewhere!

So, with low marks for functionality, how might these structures relate to the Martin family and the "domestic symphony" that Wright created for them?  Beyond the obvious free-association of the names (Martin-martin), consider the basic characteristics of the purple martin vis a vis Darwin D. Martin:  both are small (although the martin is the largest of North American swallows, it's still a relatively small bird), stocky, and frenetically busy.  Also, the communal nesting of martins seems an apt metaphor for Darwin D. Martin's ambition to create a Martin family compound - successful to the extent that he attracted his sister Delta to live in the adjacent Barton House. 

Although you won't see purple martins raising their young atop the Martin conservatory, you will see Robins determined to nest on the cantilevered cypress millwork along the pergola.  Did Wright intend these broad, sheltered wood shelves as prime nesting spots?  Hard to say, though I think he would be smiling quietly to himself to see these enterprising birds at work.

For more on purple martins, visit the Purple Martin Conservation Association, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 

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