The Martin Man 

Purple-martin landlord prepares to say goodbye to his birds.

click to enlarge Retired high-school English teacher Adolph White might be Richmond’s most loyal purple-martin fan.

Scott Elmquist

Retired high-school English teacher Adolph White might be Richmond’s most loyal purple-martin fan.

In earliest spring, a man sits by Young's Pond in the northeast corner of Bryan Park to wait for his friends.

He's there every day. Sometimes he's sitting in his gold Camry. Sometimes he's standing in the rain, waving his arms at sparrows (we'll get to that in a minute). Always he watches the sky.

In mid-March, the first purple martin arrives. And Adolph White rejoices.

"I like them because of the way they fly, their gliding," he says. "They glide like fighter jets. And when you have about 15 of them gliding, just gliding, it's the most beautiful sight that you've seen in the world."

White, a trim, 71-year-old, retired high-school English teacher, is the self-appointed landlord of the purple martins — the acrobatic, insect-eating swallows that arrive in Richmond each spring after an arduous journey from South America.

In the wild, he says, martins nest in woodpecker holes and other types of crevices. But for centuries, humans have helped them thrive by providing nesting sites in hanging gourds or pole-mounted houses. White installed the first of three houses in Bryan Park six years ago.

He modifies the houses to better ventilate the nests, converting single-room studios into one-bedroom apartments. He's constructed baffles to deter snakes and wire porches to keep away Cooper's hawks. He retrieves fallen baby birds. And he visits the houses daily from February to August, when the martins migrate south.

"The reason I don't get bored is because of the anger that I have for the sparrow," he says.

You know the house sparrow. It's the sturdy little brown-and-gray bird you see pecking crumbs off the pavement. House sparrows are total jerks. Introduced to the United States in the 1800s, they've become the mortal enemies of martins, bluebirds and other native songbirds. House sparrows are known to attack and kill adult bluebirds and their babies, viciously pecking them on the head. They sometimes build nests atop the corpses.

White's devised an ingenious way to deal with sparrows. He builds spring-loaded trap doors for particular rooms in the martin houses. When a sparrow moves in, the door swings shut and traps it. Then White climbs on a ladder and collects the sparrow in a small wire-and-wood cage.

White could kill it, as some birders do. House sparrows aren't protected by law. Instead he takes it home and feeds it cracked corn for three days before turning it loose. "It's so traumatized by being caught," he says, that it won't return to the nest. "If I kill them, I would never know whether I could have out-thought the sparrow."

He spends hours taking notes and conducting surveillance on the enemy. In a single day, he saw 12 sparrows try to move into the park's martin houses. He leaped from his car and waved his arms to chase them away. In the rain. For two hours. Then, with water squelching in his shoes, White went home, changed his clothes, put on a raincoat and returned to his post. He stayed there about four hours more, until the sun set.

White returned the next day. As soon as the sparrows saw his car, he says, they fled. "No sparrow's going to out-think me, boy!" he says with satisfaction. "It's not going to happen."

White grew up in a sharecropping family in the tiny town of Spring Grove in Surry County. His father made $16 a week. "I was planning to drop out of school in the 10th grade, like everybody else. ... You dropped out of school, you got a car and you got a girlfriend."

But the local Sunday school superintendent saw potential in the bookish teenager who liked to wander the woods, looking for birds' nests. With the help of his cousin, who was the president of Virginia Union University, the superintendent secured a full scholarship for him. White taught English and computer animation for 31 years before retiring and focusing nearly all his energy on his birds.

On a sunny morning in mid-July, only one martin fledgling remained in the house. Adults dipped and swooped over the pond, snagging insects. Once the last baby has flown, the birds will leave the houses and perch in trees.

For many years, they roosted in a row of Bradford pear trees in Shockoe Bottom, a ritual celebrated at the annual Gone to the Birds festival. But last year the birds didn't show, perhaps because they found a better roost. The 2014 festival scheduled for Aug. 2 has been canceled, organizers wrote, "due to a lack of birds and a lack of interest."

Soon the martins will begin winging their way back to Brazil. It's difficult to say goodbye, White says. "You do feel like your friend has left: Why didn't he just stay a little longer? Didn't I treat him better than this?"

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