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Stolls have largest Purple Martin colony on record

Ervin Stoll paints a plastic gourd to be a Purple Martin home. Staff Photo by Janet Rail

The Stoll family of Finger has the distinction of having the largest recorded colony of Purple Martin birds in the U.S. 

According to Steve Stoll, the keeper of the colony, the 729 pairs of the birds is the largest on record. When the Stolls moved to Finger in 1976, a small colony of 10 to 15 pairs existed on their property, Stoll said.

Under the care of Stoll’s father, Victor, the colony grew to its present size. 

“My daddy, over the years, he loved Purple Martins. He loved birds and he wanted to see how much he could attract to one location. It ended up being that many pairs before he said, ‘enough is enough,’” he said.

The elder Stoll loved the birds so much he wrote a book on them: Stoll’s Purple Martin Book: The Success Story of America’s Largest Purple Martin Colony.” 

The book was published in 2009. 

Steve Stoll became the keeper of the colony shortly before his father passed away. Steve’s brother, Ervin Stoll, also helps with the colony.

“I grew up with the birds all my life,” said Ervin. “My dad always had them and I want to keep them part of my life. I’ll never have the passion my dad had, but I enjoy them and love getting out in the mornings to hear them. I check on them every day.”

Ervin said that as his father aged, Purple Martins always got his attention.

“Dad would hear a Purple Martin before anyone could,” Ervin said.

According to Steve, the most attractive quality of Purple Martins is that they eat insects.

“They are beneficial to nature by eating so many insects and mosquitoes,” he said.

Another is that they are a very social bird.

“They really like to be with people, associate with each other. They were in big colonies, they were attracted by each other, so if you had a few pairs of birds, they would easily attract a whole bunch more,” Steve explained.

Another distinctive thing about these birds is that they like to live in gourds.

However, as Steve explained, they like to live in natural or plastic gourds, or even other types of birdhouses.

“It’s more of the dimensions and size that attracts them than if it’s plastic or wood or a natural gourd,” Steve said.

The cost of feeding the birds is virtually nil. 

Steve said that they usually do not have to feed them at all, although they have done so when the birds come early in the year.

“Sometimes we get a cold snap for three or four days and we will throw crickets up to them,” he said.

According to Steve, in addition to crickets, they will eat worms and just about any type of insect.

“Some people feed them ketchup and hamburgers and keep them in the house for a few days and that worked, but not as well,” he said.

As to whether they are beneficial to crops, Steve was uncertain.

“They eat a lot of dragonflies and dragonflies eat mosquitoes, so to say how to balance everything out, I’m not sure,” he said.

However, they do not eat crops or vegetation, according to Steve.

“They are 100 percent insect eaters,” he said. 

They eat high-flying insects, in addition to dragonflies and mosquitoes, and they also eat butterflies.

One not-so-constructive habit of the martins is that they eat honeybees, Steve said.

“We had a hive of honeybees near the colony and in the morning, we could see them eating the honeybees, so that was not so good,” he said.

When Steve was asked if the Purple Martin was his favorite bird, he said, “Absolutely, because I grew up with them.”

The Stolls had them in Central America as well as when they lived in Michigan.

About nine years ago, one of Ervin’s business neighbors had a Purple Marlin nest that fell, so Ervin put up 30 gourds at his business, Stoll’s Woodcrafts and Metals, and he has 29 gourds at his home.

The Stoll family connection with Purple Martins did not begin with Victor Stoll, since his father also had them.

The martins do not take up a large space.

“You can seclude them to a very small area. They don’t need a lot of space but they do need open spaces,” Steve said.

However, according to Steve, “They don’t like to be in trees or close to trees. That’s because of predators.”

In the United States, there are Eastern Martins, which live in this area, and Western Martins, in California.

Though it is hard to tell the two apart, according to Steve, the eastern bird is more of a colony bird.

“The western is a little more independent. They’ll nest in a woodpecker hole out in the desert or a cactus hole.”

When asked if he likes their song, Stoll said, “Yeah, it’s a beautiful song.” 

However, one disadvantage of the birds is that they make a lot of noise and they do so in the early morning hours.

— Editor’s Note: This story was published with ommisions last week. This version is the complete story.

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