On the front porch of her century-old home on Shadylawn Avenue, Barbara Campbell, 90, sat with her dog, Lucy, on a recent day in June and listened to the chirping of hundreds of purple martins.The birds flitted in and out of the cubbyholes of their white houses, raised on tall wooden or steel poles. Almost black until the sun hit them the right way, the purple martins caught the light on their wings as they zipped around the yard.
It’s breeding season, and the purple martins will continue to keep Campbell company until they migrate back to Brazil in September.
“It’s dreadful when they go back,” Campbell said. “You just get so uptight that they’re not going to come back. … It’s really comforting to have them in the yard all the time.”
Almost 25 years ago, the nonagenarian and her husband, Donnie Campbell, began their colony after he drew inspiration from a newspaper article about a purple martin sanctuary.
“It was his dream and his idea, and he was the driving force,” Dee Campbell, 68, said of his father as he sat next to his mother on the porch.
When Donnie Campbell passed away last year, his family continued to maintain the sanctuary and share the birds with the Shadylawn community.
“It attracts people,” Barbara Campbell said. “They come in and say, ‘Can I buy some of your birds?’ They don’t know, and you have the opportunity to teach. And it is wonderful.”
Next-door neighbor Jeff Hofmann said the Campbell porch has become a sort of gathering place. The Northwest Roanoke house, which was finished in 1910, has been in Barbara Campbell’s family for about 80 years, she said.
“It just seems like it’s become the hub of the neighborhood,” Hofmann said. “You’ve got a lot of streets where you don’t have neighbors who really know each other.”
The Shadylawn neighbors are different. Barbara DeHart, who has lived across the street from the Campbells with her husband, Jerry, since the early 1970s, said the neighborhood is very tightknit.
“Most people have lived here for at least 10 years,” DeHart said, adding that many have been there much longer.
DeHart said that Barbara Campbell throws an annual party for the neighborhood complete with a buffet of food and birdwatching.
“She’s just the sweetest lady you’ll ever meet,” DeHart said. “[Barbara] and her husband were very special people. ... They’d do anything for you.”
DeHart, who knew the Campbells before they began their sanctuary, said she has learned a lot about purple martins in the years since.
The songbirds, members of the swallow family, are known as secondary cavity nesters, meaning they nest in pre-existing cavities, such as woodpecker holes, rock ledges or dead trees, instead of creating their own. According to the Purple Martin Conservation Association, thousands of years ago, humans began providing housing in the form of hollowed-out gourds, and the birds shifted from finding natural cavities to depending on human-supplied housing.
Now, purple martins east of the Rocky Mountains are almost entirely dependent on human-supplied housing. In fact, their affinity for humans is one of their distinguishing characteristics, along with their chattering song.
“If you have housing and there’s no people, they’ll abandon the housing,” Dee Campbell said. “They’re by far the most tame bird in North America. It ain’t even close.”
Dee Campbell, who has a farm in Gretna, said he tried to start a colony there. The birds came but didn’t stay because he was often away visiting his mother, he said. Hofmann added that the birds don’t depend on humans for food, they just like to be nearby.
“They just like the companionship,” Hofmann said. “There’s nothing you really contribute to them.”
When Donnie Campbell began his colony, he used the same technique as the earliest purple martin caretakers, creating houses by hollowing out gourds that he had grown, Dee Campbell said. The Campbells have since upgraded to wooden houses with perches in front.
Dee Campbell explained the technology of the houses, saying that the cubbyholes are shaped in a way to prevent other birds, such as the European starling, from nesting there. European starlings are nonnative competitors of purple martins and can take over martin housing, destroy eggs and kill nestlings, according to the conservation association. Starling-resistant entrances are shaped like half moons and placed close to the compartment floor, so the purple martin, smaller than its competitor, can still fit.
The houses can be raised and lowered by a crank pulley system, and Dee Campbell said his parents would frequently lower them to count eggs and chicks. They would send reports to the conservation association, he said.
Some first-time landlords may have to persist for several years before attracting their colony, according to the association. But Donnie Campbell had purple martins in his backyard after only one year.
“Daddy had an 8-track of what they call the dawnsong, this chatter that they do,” Dee Campbell said. “He put it up on the third floor, and he had a big ol’ speaker and he played this 8-track. And the first year, he had four nests here.”
In the following two and a half decades, the colony has grown to house around 60 pairs of purple martins, with about four or five eggs per pair, he said.
And as the birds have increased, so has the strength of the community, even in the midst of the pandemic.
“It’s a big-enough porch you can have a couple [of] people over and not get too close,” Hofmann said.
When Barbara Campbell turned 90 on May 17, the street threw her a socially distant birthday party, keeping their space in her front yard.
“It was a party for the birds, too,” Barbara Campbell said.
Including her birds as a reason for the party seems in character for Campbell. Her love for animals and people comes through easily in conversation. When asked what kind of dog Lucy is, she’ll say “churchyard” instead of mutt, because that’s where she was found. A koi pond, installed by her husband, is hidden near a gazebo in her backyard, and she said she gets lonely when the birds go in the winter.
Hofmann said Campbell gets so excited when the birds return that she lets the neighborhood know, too.
“She’s yelled out at me before, ‘They’re here, they’re back,’” Hofmann said.
Donnie Campbell was the same way.
“You know how some people like hunting,” Dee Campbell said. “He more liked looking. And taking care of.”
The neighborhood seemed to have only kind things to say about Barbara and Donnie Campbell, recalling house-sitting exchanges and front porch gossip. And although Barbara Campbell has the birds to check in on her, the neighborhood makes a point of keeping her company, too.
“Most of the time,” she said, “somebody’s sitting on the porch.”
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