This is a neat story from earlier in the summer I didn’t get around to posting. An Amish couple in Somerset County, PA, agreed to be interviewed and photoed for a story on purple martins. These are the birds every Amish farmer wants to have around. They eat pesky insects, lots of them, and are valued for that. Purple martin houses are common on Amish properties.

Mark and Elizabeth Brenneman are the couple here. Mark is a semi-retired former harness shop owner, and a lover of purple martins. From the story by Sandra Lepley at Daily American:

Tucked away on big bird houses mounted on poles behind Mark’s Harness Shop near Springs is a thriving family of purple martins sailing through the air continually and having nestlings galore this time of year.

The well-known and longstanding Amish shop at 1089 Springs Road is filled with leather products and agricultural items, bringing in customers from all over the tri-state area. For the purple martin birds, however, the shop signifies their summer home where they return to every spring.

Mark Brenneman and his wife, Elizabeth, have found great joy in caring for this passerine bird in the swallow family. They have erected four houses and one gourd on poles behind the shop, which is also next to their home. But, the caring doesn’t stop there. They clean and fill their nests with shavings in the spring in preparation for their arrival and then they carefully take the hatchlings out and clean the nests again in June to protect them from insects and mites.

They are a sanctuary for the birds. Mark put up his first gourd house eight years ago. The houses, it turns out, are very important for the martins, more than I realized:

Purple martins are well known for making their nests in artificial houses. There is even a purple martin house on the upper diamond in Somerset. And purple martins become almost entirely dependent on these types of structures, especially in the east and even within cities and towns, according to Wikipedia. They are usually absent from areas where no nest sites are provided and often having a nearby colony within the general area helps to attract a new family. It is often the fledglings from last year that scout out a new site and a new colony gradually begins in a new location from there.

What do the Brennemans appreciate about purple martins, besides their practical insect-eliminating abilities?

“No one can tell me there is no God when you look at and think about the purple martin,” said Mark Brenneman, who is semi-retired from his business Mark’s Harness Shop that he sold to his grandson, Cephas Fisher, a few years ago. “What is amazing to me is that they fly the whole way to Brazil and back and they know exactly how to get back home without a map.”

“I’m not sure where they started from originally but there are other colonies in the area,” he said. “Every year after we put up the gourd, we added another house. We started out with one and we never dreamed we would have four houses and one gourd and have this big of a colony of birds. It is a beautiful site to see them in the summer and people who stop by the shop look out the windows and watch them.”

Elizabeth says the birds “like to be around people” so it sounds like they are companions of sorts as well. The bird-parents apparently don’t mind the Brennemans cleaning their nests, full of baby birds, which they physically handle and remove from the nests while cleaning up.

Mark estimates there are over 100 birds, and they had 57 active nests this past summer. More gourds will be added for next year, because “the city is getting full” he says with some humor.

Nice to see that the Amish couple here was willing to participate to share their love of these helpful birds with outsiders. So if you’ve ever wondered what the houses or hollowed-out gourds in front of Amish homes are for, they are important refuges for a bird widely-appreciated among the Amish.

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