Martins Removed to the Zoo in 1899

Author Unknown
1899 Newspaper Article
Philadelphia, PA
Reprinted in the Wilson Bulletin
Volume 6, pages 74-75.

Editorial Preface: This article below appeared 108 years ago in a scientific birding journal known as the Wilson Bulletin. The account has received very little attention, and we at the Purple Martin Preservation Alliance felt it was worth investigating further. The article ultimately served as the inspiration for a project that we conducted in southwestern Pennsylvania during the 2007 season, a project that may serve to break new ground in Purple Martin conservation.

“Remarkable intelligence was exhibited by a colony of martins which were transferred from this place [unknown] to the Zoological Garden, in Philadelphia, a few days ago, the birds returning here and escorting their lost companions to the new home, where they occupy cozy quarters to the delight of the management of the garden and its patrons.

For many years the management of the Zoological Garden has been attempting to secure a colony of martins for the purpose of locating them in the institution, but every attempt met with failure. The birds would not build in the boxes erected and could not be coaxed to make their home in the Garden in any manner, notwithstanding the efforts of the management.

Josiah Hoopes, of this place [unknown], some time ago became interested in the matter, and being a lover of the birds, determined to assist the management of the Garden if possible in securing a colony. He had a fine one at his home and at once began arrangements for the removal of it to the new location, adopting a rather novel plan for the transfer. Early in the spring, a large box was prepared for the birds when they should return to his home after the winter in the south. The box was so arranged that it could be lowered from its pole at will, and above the entrance to each apartment in it was arranged a little sliding door which could be dropped, thus imprisoning the birds. The birds came at the usual time this spring and commenced the building of their nests in the new box. They were not disturbed, Jacobsladder100laid their eggs and in due course of time little martins made their appearance. This was a few days ago and the time was due for the experiment of moving them, depending upon the love the old ones bore their young for its success.

A dark night was selected for the removal and a representative of the Philadelphia institution was sent for. He came here and the home of the birds was invaded. The shutters closing the entrances to the home of the birds were dropped, but a few of them failed to work and [some of] the alarmed birds escaped from the box. The house was lowered from its pole and taken to the Zoological Garden , where it was erected in a new location, the managers hoping all would remain there.
Early the next morning after the birds were transferred [and the martins released] an unusual commotion was noticed about the box by the keepers in the Garden. The martins seemed to be holding a consultation and calling the role in their own manner. Then they grouped about the box and there was a lot of chattering among them as though they were deciding some question of great moment. After this, the entire colony of old birds, leaving the young in the box to care for themselves, rose in the air and flew away. There was consternation in the “Zoo” and it was decided that the attempt at removal [actually relocation] had been a failure.

An hour after the birds had left Philadelphia, there was a commotion on the Hoopes lawn. A large colony of martins were gathered there and they were chattering at a great rate. Occasionally, another bird would join the assemblage. Finally all the birds rose and disappeared in a flock. Before noon there was happiness at the “Zoo.” The martins had returned to their home and the colony was augmented by many new arrivals. The birds had returned for the ones which had escaped from their homes in the box the night before and had escorted them to their young. The birds are now located in the Garden and making their home their [sic] as though it were their original place of abode, and there is joy in the hearts of the managers.

The above clipping from a Philadelphia newspaper was sent by Mr. Frank L. Burns, and is of great interest in showing that wild birds can be transplanted . — [Editor, Lyns Jones, 1899]”

Editorial Commentary and Analysis: I was very intrigued by this century-old JacobsClanaccount and began searching for more information. If this account is to be believed, it could mean that a radically new colony-establishment technique has been ignored for over 100 years. An internet search for the name “Josiah Hoopes” revealed that there was a world-renowned botanist and nursery owner named Josiah Hoopes who lived on Maple St. in West Chester, PA, about 20 miles due west of Philadelphia. If this were the same Hoopes, we could be sure of the original location of the colony, and thus the distance of the transplant. (See map at bottom of page). Further research revealed that this same Josiah Hoopes was also an amateur ornithologist who had amassed a huge collection of bird skins that he eventually donated to the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. He also sent bird skins to the Smithsonian Institution for identification. My belief that this was the same Josiah Hoopes was further corroborated by a West Chester University history professor and local historian named Jim Jones, who indicated that the name was fairly uncommon among Quakers, and agreed that this was certainly the same Josiah Hoopes.

HoopesDrawingJosiah Hoopes (1832-1904), whose last name is pronounced like “took” or “look” and not like hula-“hoop”, was a member of several professional organizations, suggesting he was an educated man with the time and means to design and carry out an elaborate experiment of this nature. Keep in mind that Hoopes had to design a martin house that would both trap the martins inside and that could be lowered & removed without tilting over (because the shutters would have opened and nests become upset). Two poles would have been needed to accommodate the project – one at the donor site and one at the transplant site. Nothing is known about about the specific design of the poles or housing, the number of pairs, the age of the nestlings, whether or not martins came back the next year, what day the transplant was done, and how the house was transported. Was the house he moved from his yard to the Zoo the only one he had? Did the Zoo get martins back the following year? Was the writer of the newspaper article a witness – or did he get his information second-hand? How accurate is his version of events? A slew of questions remained.

It is tempting to believe that more detailed records of the planning and execution of this experiment exist, as it was common for both amateur and professional scientists to keep diaries or journals. It seems plausible that Hoopes would have bequeathed any such records to one of the institutions he was affiliated with. Hoopes corresponded regularly with the Smithsonian Institute, where he sent bird skins to be examined and identified. He also donated his rather extensive bird skin collection to the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. I have attempted to locate any journals or diaries pertaining to his Purple Martin transplant experiment by contacting both institutions, but while both have letters to or from Hoopes in their collection, none of them mention his Purple Martin transplant project. The West Chester Historical Society and the Quaker Library at Swarthmore College also hold extensive genealogical records of the Quakers in eastern PA, but neither had anything about the Hoopes transplant. The Philadelphia Zoo librarian could not determine from their records if the Zoo ever had a colony of martins since they would not have been cataloged as part of the Zoo’s collection. If it could be documented that the Zoo had a colony in 1899 or 1900, it would tend to verify that the experiment was successful. I also contacted the president of the West Chester Bird Club, to see if they had any historical information about this experiment. It seems odd that nobody did more to document this amazing experiment at the time – not even the editor of the Wilson Bulletin commented on this transplant account. One would think that if this colony-starting technique had been successful, it would have become more widely-known and practiced.

The most helpful, friendly, and interesting source of information was a local West Chester historian and college professor named Jim Jones, an authority on Hoopes and other Quakers, who generously gave of his time in helping to research this mystery. Jim was kind enough to search the archives of the West Chester Historical Society for information about the Hoopes transplant experiment. Jim maintains a website about various aspects of West Chester history and government at He is an amazing and generous individual, who also wrote a short , but very interesting biography about Josiah Hoopes.

New Information Surfaces! On August 21, 2007, I traveled to Waynesburg, PA, home of the late J. Warren Jacobs, a prominent ornithologist and contemporary of Josiah Hoopes, where I met with George Blystone, a descendent of Jacobs, who has a large collection of Jacob’s effects. Among them was a collection of his published material, and one of these publications contained information about the Hoopes experiment. This new material reveals that the Hoopes experiment did not succeed.

“… I quote the following from Circular No. 56 U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Bureau of Biological Survey. — Value of Swallows as Insect Destroyers. by H.W. Henshaw.
‘This experiment was tried in the zoological gardens at Philadelphia in 1889 [date incorrect] by Mr. Robert D. Carson, who, by means of a trap house, secured a colony of nine pairs with 32 young from the grounds of Mr. Josiah Hoopes, of West Chester, transporting them the distance of about 20 miles by train at night. When released next morning the old birds deserted the young and returned to West Chester. The temptation of the old home so close by proved too strong even for parental affection. Most of the young however, were successfully raised by hand feeding, being fed chiefly cockroaches, grasshoppers, crickets, mealworms, and “prepared food.” This is a mixture intended for insectivorous birds, and according to Mr. Carson was well liked by the nestlings and agreed well with them. It consists of “dried and ground beef heart, meal, ground zweiback, boiled and mashed white potatoes, grated raw carrot, and grated hard-boiled eggs.” Probably any similar mixture would answer equally well. A small colony resulted from this experiment which would probably have proved permanent but for the fact that additional houses were put up in West Chester, and after two years the colony deserted to the old neighborhood. Though only temporary success was achieved, the experiment is encouraging and points the way to ultimate success. For the above facts, I am indebted to Mr. Charles J. Pennock, of Kennett Square, PA.’ – Dated April 27, 1907.
In the opinion of the present writer these birds did not desert the Zoological Garden and return to West Chester because additional boxes were put up in the latter place, but because conditions of the new quarters, when they returned twice to breed, did not appeal to their instincts. Perhaps the place was too public, the position or height of the box not to their liking, or the box itself not suitable for successfully rearing their young.” – from Jacobs, J. Warren. 1909. “The Purple Martin and Houses for Its Summer Home” Gleanings No. 5. p. 38

Editorial Commentary and Analysis: Henshaw states that “a small colony resulted from” the Hoopes experiment, and if it is true that the Zoological Gardens did have a colony of breeding martins the next season (and even this is questionable), it would not be a direct result of the Hoopes transplant, but rather a result of the abandoned nestlings that were hand-raised and released by Robert D. Carson and the Zoo staff – a technique known as “hacking”. Additionally, Jacobs explanation of why the colony abandoned the Zoo after two years is unlikely . If the box or location did not appeal to them, they would not have nested there for even one year. If they did not return for a second or third year, it was probably because they experienced “total reproductive failure,” which means that none of the nesting pairs successfully fledged any young at the Zoo site in the season prior to the abandonment. That failure may have been a result of predation by owls or raccoons, depredation by starlings or house sparrows, or weather-induced starvation of the nestlings. We now know that martins will return to the same nest site year after year as long as they successfully fledge young (and survive their migration to and from Brazil). But even small colonies of one or two successfully-nesting pairs are extremely vulnerable because of natural off-season mortality of the adults.

Other links and items pertaining to Josiah Hoopes:
An obituary about Hoopes that appeared in the Auk (Adobe Acrobat Reader required)
A letter written to Hoopes from the Curator of Birds at the Smithsonian Institute
A letter Hoopes wrote to the Curator of Birds at the Smithsonian Institute

The photographs above with martin housing in them are not of Josiah Hoopes Purple Martin colonies in West Chester, but rather of J. Warren Jacobs martin housing in Waynesburg. Jacobs was a contemporary of Hoopes; both ornithologists lived around the turn of the century in Pennsylvania. Thanks to George Blystone of Jacobs Birdhouse Co. for permission to use the Jacobs photographs.
Based on this and other accounts claiming to have successfully transplanted martins, the Purple Martin Preservation Alliance decided to test whether breeding Purple Martins could be transplanted. We applied for state and federal wildlife permits to attempt several transplants during the 2007 season. All but one of the attempted transplants failed.