Kathy Laine walks across her five-acre property like Darwin must have stridden across the Galapagos Islands—with the excitement and the ”I love this job!” anticipation of the true scientist.
Laine isn’t a scientist in the “degree’d” sense of the word, nor is her study of birds, in particular the Purple Martin, a job. It’s her “passion,” a life-long fascination with ornithology that began, as she says, “way before I even knew what ornithology meant…before I’d heard the word or knew it was a field of study.”
Who can resist a story like this?
Laine grew up in the Roanoke area, a neighborhood she says “wasn’t the country, but we had birds.” Her first foray into the study of birds happened like this: “I built a little trap — a box with a door, attached to a string, that I could pull from inside in case a blue jay actually entered. And they did. I baited the trap, and when they entered, and I closed the door, I would take them out, very gently and study them.”
When Laine went to college, it was with the intention of becoming a vet: she left with a BA in animal science and a minor in biology. While life took her in another direction (she met her husband in college) — she didn’t end up doctoring animals —she has worked at vet hospitals since she was 15 years old.
Now she’s become an autodidact, a self-taught expert (Darwin described himself as an autodidact too) in the area of native bird species, with shelves filled with notebooks, records, CDs and the latest updates from ornithology organizations across the world.
Her knowledge of the birds that live in the 12 gourds strung across the tall “rack” visible from a wide kitchen window is extensive, broad and deep, and it is impossible not to catch her enthusiasm and quickly become interested in a field that escaped notice until five minutes ago.
“It’s the purple martins that fascinate me most,” said Laine. “And I really don’t know why. Once you’re into martins, you’re obsessed. But the species, a pairing species with many traits like ours -- they’re competitive, child-centered, playful, ingenious and home-loving—never stops fascinating me. It took me 11 years to create a community of 13 pairs of purple martins. I got the first pair to move into a gourd the second year I embarked on this adventure. By the next year, I had seven pairs, and now “the inn is full.”
She tells me her goal is to keep the gourds occupied — birds do die in the course of migration or from old age. She has CDs filled with bird “vocalizations” — mating calls and candlelight croonings designed to make female birds more amenable to mating.
“It’s a real ritual,” she said.
When the male birds arrive back from Brazil, where they overwinter, in spring, they compete for the attention of the female martins, and they can be very aggressive. But it’s important for them to find a partner fast, so they can set up housekeeping in these gourds again and reproduce.”
The rhythm of life
The migration to Brazil is something I know nothing about.
“Thousands of miles,” said Laine. “They go for the warm winter climate, eating bugs all day and traveling south in huge groups. They break the six-week journey by resting in familiar ‘rooks,’ places like I-beams under bridges or in the tops of trees in public places, shopping centers for instance. They know they’ll be safer from predators if they rest in public places. Bird enthusiasts know where these rookeries are—the Umstead Bridge, for example, between Mann’s Harbor and Roanoke Island in Dare County, North Carolina.”
Laine said she’s toured some of these rooks herself in the fall, by boat on one occasion, and that it’s a breathtaking sight, masses of martins so large they can be tracked by Doppler radar.
What’s really interesting, Laine explained, is that every year in the spring the same martins return to her colony.
“I don’t know how they know this is ‘home,’” she said. “But they do.”
They fly thousands of miles, sometimes taking one route down and another back, and they make it back to these same gourds. They have some internal sort of GPS system, a compass orientation that tells them on their return which gourd is theirs.
“When they return, of course, the first thing each male does is look for a mate. And they’re devious. An unattached male will sneak into a gourd and make a mess or kidnap and abandon a baby bird, so the female will think her current ‘husband’ isn’t doing a good job and toss him out. Then the troublemaker moves in.”
Laine also explained about Ibird-Pro, an app that offers bird-lovers information on more than 940 species of birds across the country, pictures, photos, drawings and sounds.
Eventually, Laine takes this reporter outside for a close-up of her operation, urging use of bug spray and issuing warnings to watch out for ticks and snakes.
The vertical “rack” to which Laine refers is maybe a 20-foot white pole, its top festooned horizontally with a wide hat of hanging plastic gourds, each one numbered from 1 to 12 (a 13th gourd, “extra living space” hangs nearby off a shepherd’s hook). About 5 feet up the pole, there’s a metal device called a “baffle,” designed to lure snakes into its boxy inside and keep them away from the nests above.
“But it didn’t work,” said Laine. “So I looked inside and discovered this shoebox like thing, a rectangular house with a closed top, was too simple for your average snake, who slithers up the pole, looks into the baffle, and discovering there’s no way out at the top, and he can’t see the nests from inside, concludes that this is the wrong way up if he wants to conclude his mission.
“So,” continued Laine, “I rigged up this large cover to go over the baffle – it’s made of bird netting, and it’s loose, not tight or solid. I constructed it so that it has various ‘entry points’ for the snake, who goes in thinking there’s a way out. And remember, he can still see and smell the nests above, so that’s an incentive. But there is no way out, and the snake realizes he’s stuck at a dead end.
“When the snake, who can go no further, tries to back up, his scales get stuck in the wire, and I have him.”
“I put him in a container and relocate him miles away from this property.”
Laine said she had three snake attacks in 2013, a bad year for birds, a good year for black rat snakes.
Laine works at a pulley device that allows her to lower the shelf of gourds to about 5 feet from the ground.
“Once every five days – sometimes three days-- I check the nests,” said Laine. “Then I report my data to the PMCA (Purple Martin Conservation Association). They want to know how many pairs are living in these gourds, if their health is good, if there are any problems, if there are eggs—and how many eggs hatch. When the baby martins have fledged (made their first successful solo flight), the association wants that information as well. They monitor the population.”
Methodically and with the precision of an expert researcher, Laine begins to open the first gourd, heavy-plastic designed by Andy Troyer, an Amish bird researcher in Pennsylvania.
“Troyer understands the housing needs of the purple martin,” said Laine. “They need a cozy, safe interior that stays warm enough for the eggs and hatchlings. I put in a layer of pine needles after the birds leave in late summer-early fall, so in the spring, all they have to do is lay in a layer of green leaves from their favorite tree here on the property.”
Her equipment hangs at her belt, a notebook and pencil in hand.
“You can’t skimp on the gourds — beginners tend to buy cheaper gourds, and that’s a big mistake. Come here and look,” she whispered. “Eggs.
After this photographer snaps a photograph, she moves on to gourds number 2 and 3. The third nest triggers a delighted squeal from Laine.
As she moves closer, sure enough, there lies a handful of small, fleshy, wriggling wormy baby martins.
“I know they’re really ugly,” said Laine. “God bless their little hearts.”
Laine takes a hatchling out to assess its size and probable age. She lays the fleshy hatchling, no bigger than your little finger, on a chart with images of baby birds at various stages of development. Ours matches the 1-day-old photo, and she quickly returns it to its siblings in the gourd.
“It’s important you tell your readers not to handle the birds a lot. It’s not healthy. I wash my hands thoroughly before and after.”
I ask Laine about that urban legend that says if a human handles a baby bird, it’s mother won’t come back for it.
“That’s a myth,” said Laine. “Just don’t handle them a lot.”
She moves quickly now to the remaining gourds, and somewhere down the line, she finds older hatchlings, with feathers and beaks, clearly hungry and waiting for their parents (angrily circling above us) to return with food.
“These are much older, see…” said Laine. “Be careful one doesn’t pop out at you.”
The remaining gourds all have eggs or hatchlings inside, and Laine quickly records the data: first-day hatches, one-week old babies, the number of eggs that made it, the ones that didn’t.
Laine also studies bluebirds and swallows. And she has favorites. Martins are number 1, while the European starling (“a vicious bird, brought over from Europe to eat bugs…but now its destroying our native species”) squats at the bottom of the ladder. The house sparrow doesn’t rank much higher.
“People don’t understand how damaging house sparrows are,” said Laine, showing photos of martins targeted by foreign invaders, their eggs shattered, eyes pecked out.
An avian war
of the worlds
The last nest she checks belongs to tree swallows, a “very aggressive species who don’t like intruders,” said Laine. The swallows are circling overhead, swooping in closer as Laine inspects the nest at the end of her driveway.
“Be careful they don’t try to dive-bomb you,” said Laine, laughing. “They’ve almost gotten me, but not yet.”
After roughly an hour, the bird tour is done. Laine isn’t—she said she loves “to share” and that “God has truly blessed her and her husband with her lovely home in the middle of nature where she can live with and study these beautiful beings.”
When asked if she brings groups out and shares her knowledge with them, Laine said, “Small groups.
“The lives of birds are very seasonal—sometimes they need privacy, in mating season, when the eggs come, and the babies hatch.
“And,” she added, “I’m very busy with my own research and volunteering at places like the Good Samaritan in South Boston.”
There are a slew of organizations and conservation associations that Laine keeps up with, not just the Purple Martin Conservation Association, but the Bluebird Society and the Southside Bird Club in Danville.
She also works hard to make the annual Purple Martin Field Day a success—this year the event was held in Louisa. Interested bird enthusiasts can call Laine at 434-454-9221.
This reporter leaves Laine’s property with a new interest in the birds she loves as well as admiration for a woman who’s created her own version of the Galapagos Islands to explore on five acres in Halifax County. uSVP