A History of Purple Martin Colonies in Natrona Heights, PA and Surrounding Areas Prior to 1972
Ken Kostka Purple Martin Preservation Alliance
“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” – William Faulkner, 1951
As a boy growing up in Natrona Heights, PA I attended Birdville Elementary school. I began birdwatching at age 11 when my older brother Joe gave me a Peterson Field Guide to the Birds, and I remember identifying a Rose-breasted Grosbeak in an orchard stand of Staghorn Sumac shortly thereafter. In high school woodshop I built a Purple Martin house and was intrigued when no martins moved in; “getting martins” became a lifelong passion. In my quest to attract these elusive birds, I was fortunate enough to gain the friendship of several older residents who told me the location of most if not all of the old colony sites in the area. In 1981, only one site remained active (Saxon Golf Course) within a 20 mile area but I tried to gather as much information about these long-gone colonies as I could. I was fortunate enough to talk face to face with some of these old landlords about 30 years ago. They are all gone now – and their martin houses long since removed. So I wanted to remember them here. In a quirk of fate, or perhaps not, I bought a residence in 2008 that was the site of the old “Gyp” Gilson martin colony on Painter Avenue in Natrona Heights.. Most of the colonies in the area were gone by the late 1960’s and all but one endured no longer than 1972, the year Hurricane Agnes caused the death of almost all martins in SW PA. Over the years I have gathered additional information and documented nine former colonies in or near Natrona Heights. In 1999, I attracted one breeding pair to my parent’s home in Natrona Heights; they laid four eggs and hatched three, but the nestlings died of blowfly infestation before they were a week old. In 2005, after 7 years of trying, I successfully attracted another breeding pair to the U.S. Army Corps Lock and Dam facility along the Allegheny River in Natrona. That colony has grown to about 30 breeding pairs.
I do not have exact dates for the establishment or demise of the old colonies, but most of them were active from about the mid 1940’s through the mid 1960’s. Not all of the colonies were in Natrona Heights. A few were in Tarentum and Brackenridge, only a mile or two away, and a few were in the Saxonburg area, about 8 miles northwest. All of the martin houses were wooden houses on fixed poles, with 6″ x 6″ compartments and 2″ entrance holes. None of the martin housing remains, but the pole mount for the old Gyp Gilson colony (photo above) is still in my backyard. A great debt is owed to Jerry Presley and Lloyd Getty, two elderly locals I knew in my youth. These “old-timers” told me about all of these old colony locations. Jerry Presley (left in photo) tried to attract martins for over 40 years in various locations around the Alle-Kiski Valley – in downtown Brackenridge, along Bull Creek Rd. in Fawn Township, next to the VFW across from Harrison Hills Park in Natrona Heights, and along Bear Creek Rd. in Sarver. Several years before he died, he had several SY-M’s make extended stays at his housing in Sarver, from which he took great pleasure. I took pictures of these which he framed and put on his wall. This is around the time martins were starting to make a comeback. Sadly, he never attained his dream of establishing his own colony. Lloyd Getty (right in photo), also a mentor of mine, was a constable in Saxonburg for many years, and was instrumental in keeping the martin tradition alive in the Alle-Kiski Valley. Instrumental because Lloyd managed the only colony to survive the onslaught of Hurricane Agnes in 1972. While the housing at Saxon Golf Course was not manageable, Lloyd trapped House Sparrows religiously, without which the colony probably wouldn’t have survived.
Mr. & Mrs. J.J. Gleinn 1437 Fourth St. Natrona Heights., PA 15065
Around the year 2000, I drove with friends to Waynesburg, PA to help a local birding group search for a pre-migratory Purple Martin roosting site. Thousands of martins were congregating at a local golf course and disappearing around dusk, but nobody knew where they were roosting. Just before dark, small groups of people would fan out around the countryside within several miles of the golf course in an attempt to locate the roost site. They were eventually found to be roosting in a prison yard!. In any case, it was my privilege to meet the legendary birder Ralph Bell on one of these trips. (Ralph knew the famous J. Warren Jacobs. As a boy, Ralph got his hair cut in the same place as the much older Jacobs.) Ralph generously allowed me to go through his decades of banding records. I was astounded to find he hand a banding recovery from Natrona Heights, PA dated 1966! An adult female banded by Ralph near Waynesburg was found dead on May 20, 1966 at the Gleinn’s residence in Natrona Heights, about 100 miles north?. I went to this address sometime around 2005 and knocked on the door, hoping to obtain some information about this colony, knowing it was a longshot. The people living there said that said that when they bought the house (about 1975), there were “a bunch of bird houses” in the back yard and they just took them all down. They don’t remember anything else. There probably weren’t any martins nesting there, as most martins were not wiped out by the rains of Hurricane Agnes in 1972. (photo at right is Ralph Bell)
UPDATE: In December of 2013, I received more information about this colony from Jim Lefik, which I have reprinted here: “I came across your site by accident when Googling the history of Natrona Heights since I was born and raised there. I lived on Fourth Street and remember the Purple Martin colony located at 1437 Fourth Street fondly. Every spring in the 60’s and early 70’s I watched and listened to the Martins as they performed their acrobatic displays over my back yard beginning in the early Spring. I lived 4 doors down from the family who owned the home. So yes, I can confirm that there was a sizeable nesting colony there for quite a few years on the top of that big metal pole, and they often collected on the power lines out front along the street. It was definitely a Purple Martin hotel designed specifically for them. I was born in 1962, and being an avid nature buff, remember identifying those cheerful and beautiful birds in my own Peterson Guide. Their chatter is unmistakable, and to my surprise those childhood memories came flooding back when I golfed at Saxonburg Golf course several years ago and watched them swooping over the fairways. That was the first time I had seen a Martin in many years. I just thought I’d drop you a note to give you a little more insight into that colony. I am not sure exactly when they disappeared, but to my dismay I do recall seeing Starlings and Sparrows nesting there later in the 70’s and 80’s. *** The [single] martin house was white with a dark roof, designed/shaped somewhat like a Colonial Home if I recall correctly, with approximately 6 nesting holes on each of four sides. It was about 3 ft x 3 ft mounted on the very top of a metal pole, 20 feet high. There weren’t any natural bodies of water anywhere (ponds, streams), but interestingly, the family had a large in ground pool (15 x 40??) very close to the colony, almost underneath. There were a decent amount of birds as well, and I am sure at some times it included fledglings, but I would estimate 15-20 nesting pairs. They would line up along the power lines in front above Fourth Street almost directly in front of the residence where the nest box was located. One of their main flight paths was over my parent’s backyard garden, and I’d watch them from the back porch. We knew the owners of the home very well, and they were nice people. Maybe they bought the house from a previous owner and the colony was already there, or they put it up themselves? Not sure. They seemed to disappear around 1972 or shortly after, Hurricane Agnes time period. I am not certain of that year, but close. So that fact you mentioned in your article I found interesting and also sad and made a lot of sense. Hope this helps you. And I also wish you continued success in your efforts to help them. One person truly can make a difference. Take care, Jim Lefik” [added 12/17/13] Thanks for sharing this Jim. The information is much appreciated!!
John Slivon (pronounced slee-von) 1072 Roup Ave. Brackenridge, PA
I had the pleasure of meeting John Slivon in about 1981. I took detailed notes of our conversation. He had martins from about 1940-1965 at the corner of Roup Ave and Ohio St. in Brackenridge, which is about 1/2 mile from the Allegheny River in a suburban setting.. He started with a 4 compartment house, then an 8, then a 16, all of which were filled to capacity. He also had a colony at his camp in Tionesta, PA, and reported an unusual behavior among those birds. There was a hayfield with 2-3 ft. tall grass across from his camp. He said the martins often foraged over this hayfield. However, a few male birds, which he called scrubbers, would fly low over the top of the grass and shake it by fluttering their wings, causing insects to be flushed out, which all of the martins fed upon. (The martins were ultimately shot by vandals, ending that colony.) He reports that none of his martins used mud in nest construction. Amazingly, John reported what may be the first account of emergency supplemental feeding of starving Purple Martins. One year, a cold spring caught his colony off-guard. Shumaker’s martins (a nearby colony) were falling to the ground from starvation. In an apparently successful attempt to save his colony, he put canned dog food on a long pole and dropped it onto the ledges of the martin house. The martins reportedly pecked at it, eventually ate the food, and survived! John’s house was made of white pine and sat atop a 21 ft. pole. He said there wasn’t nearly as many tall trees as there are now. (The area was much more open.) He put wood shavings in the bottom of the compartments at the beginning of the season. His martins came in mid-April and left in mid-August. Most arrived in late April. He reports that when mid-August departure time came, a large group of migrating martins would stop at his house to pick up his colony. He lost his colony sometime in the early 1960’s. He said he read of a storm in the Gulf Region where many martins were reportedly killed. His martins did not return that spring. [Editorial comment: This is unlikely because we now know that martins do not migrate as a colony. When a sizeable colony is lost, it’s usually because of something that happened right at the colony site during the breeding season, usually at night. More often than not, it is usually because a raccoon or snake climbed the pole at night (over a period of several nights), eating nestlings and adults. (both predators can climb metal poles). Great-horned Owl’s can also wipe out a small colony or cause the rest to abandon. (link?)] Interestingly, John reported intense fighting between starlings and martins in the years leading up to the demise of his colony. It is possible that intense competition from these nest site competitors could have been the cause of the loss. Starlings have been known to go from compartment to compartment breaking eggs or killing nestlings. Several years later, approximately 20 martins landed on his 21 compartment house and stayed overnight, only to leave the next morning. They gradually began to hover in the air and all left at once. In 1979, three martins stayed overnight. He took the house down in 1981. One year John erected several freshly-painted bluebird houses. There was already great competition for compartments in the martin house, resulting in a “freshly-painted” martin that had apparently attempted to enter the bluebird box. .
John Mazgaj (pronounced muz-guy) 2414 High St. Natrona Heights, PA
I was lucky enough to talk to John in the early 1980’s. He lived about a block from where I grew up, and right around the corner from the Gyp Gilson colony. Jerry Presley told me about his colony and when I saw him in his backyard one day, I approached him and introduced myself.. He was very friendly and told me various facts about his colony. Like John Slivon, he reported intense fighting between the martins and the starlings. He used to put sawdust into the compartments at the beginning of the season. One year he used wood chips or shavings, and the martins worked furiously to remove them. He also states that the martins would gather on the phone lines and make quite a bit of noise as they chattered in the morning, and that the neighbors would complain about this. He had to climb a ladder to put his martin house on its pole. One year he fell as he was climbing the ladder and broke his leg, failing to get the house up and losing his colony that season.
“Gyp” Gilson 514 Painter Ave Natrona Heights, PA
This colony was only 600 ft from the house I grew up in, and where I now live! I learned of it from John Mazgaj, who was only around the block from it. John told me that Gyp recorded his martins with a boom-mike! According to George Bowser, Gyp was a member of the church choir, which would explain why he might have recording equipment. According to long-time neighborhood resident Theresa Valasek, Gyp’s yard was full of martin houses. One of these houses survived into the mid-to late 1990’s. I remember seeing it. Wish I had taken a photo! In 2008, I purchased this property and in 2010 it was again filled with martin houses! Martins visited on a regular basis; most were from the newly-established Lock 4 colony in Natrona. One martin even took regular feedings of tossed scrambled egg In 2010, I attracted one breeding pair in 2011 which grew to 12 pairs in 2012. The Gyp Gilson colony lives again!
Allegheny St. & 2nd Ave Tarentum, PA
I learned about this colony location from Jerry Presley, but have no details, other than that it existed..
Mr. Shumaker 11th Ave., Tarentum, PA
This colony was located somewhere behind Dusters Funeral Home in Tarentum. I have no details about it aside from the fact that one cold spring many if not most of the martins died from starvation. He was a friend or acquaintance of John Slivon. I learned about the location of this colony from Jerry Presley.
Tarentum Community Park 1st Ave. Tarentum, PA
This colony was located on the bank of the Allegheny River. The park still exists today but is full of tall trees. Jerry Presley told me about this colony, which was abandoned when kids threw stones at the martins, apparently killing some and causing the rest to abandon.
1100 block Idaho Ave. (west of Freeport Rd.) Natrona Heights., PA
This colony was located on Idaho Ave. on the western side of Freeport Rd.. This may have been one of the longer-existing colonies in the area, possibly surviving into the early 1970’s. (I wish I had taken better notes back in the days when I talked to Jerry Presley). Jerry told me, amusedly, how on several occasions how he stopped to tell the guy who bought the property how rare it was to have martins. According to Jerry, the guy looked at him like he was crazy, so he never stopped again. To the untrained eye, martins just look like a “some blackbird”. Most people can’t tell the difference between a starling and a martin – and don’t care to. This guy must have thought Jerry was some schizophrenic lunatic.
Penn Salt Company Supervisor’s Residence Federal St. Natrona, PA
I learned about this colony quite by accident while visiting my deceased parent’s friends, George and Norma Bowser. Jerry Presley never mentioned it. According to long-time area resident George Bowser, there were 3-4 large, elaborate martin houses in the yard of the Penn Salt Supervisors Residence. The yard was fenced in. The martin houses were well-populated ( I quizzed George about how he knew the difference between starlings and martins andhe passed with flying colors.)
Victor Kostka Residence 2322 Buchanan St. Natrona, Heights, PA
One pair bred here in 1999, but failed to fledge their nestlings because of a blowfly parasite infestation. It has since been learned that blowfly can be controlled by carefully treating nest compartments with Sevin.
Saxon Golf Course Ekastown Rd Sarver, PA
About 1 mile south of Saxonburg, PA, this is the closest colony to Natrona Heights to survive the devastation of Tropical Storm Agnes, which stalled over Western Pennsylvania in mid-June of 1972, causing over a week of constant rains in the middle of the Purple Martin breeding season. The unrelenting rains deprived the air of insects, causing almost all martins – both nestlings and adults – to die of starvation. Only a handful of martins survived, and those which did faced increasing pressure from aggressive starlings and house sparrows. Thanks in large part to the efforts of Lloyd Getty, who religiously trapped House Sparrows, this colony survived. It originally consisted of two wooden houses on fixed posts. (see photos). One house was removed and the other was replaced several times over the years. In 2001, when Lloyd passed away, the house was in bad shape and the colony was down to 10-12 pairs. I convinced the Golf Course management to allow me to erect and manage a wooden T-14. A second was added the next year and the colony has since grown to 28 pairs, achieving 100% occupancy for the past five years. A pair of martins from this colony started the Lock 4 Natrona colony in 2005 [link]. Ten pairs of martins were displaced in an attempt to start new colonies in the area…[link] Lloyd mentioned that everyone in Saxonburg had martins back in the day. This is not surprising, since the Saxonburg was settled by Germans, who were big in the tradition of building wooden martin houses. Saxonburg, was also the home of Roebling, who built the first suspension bridge.I do not have any information about these many colonies in Saxonburg, save for one, at the Green Acres Farm owned by Harold E. Cullen, which survived into the 1960’s. An adult male banded by Ralph Bell near Waynesburg, PA was recovered by Mr. Cullen on June 2, 1960. I believe Lloyd Getty did mention that the site was a rather large estate with horses. One other colony that bears mention was about 10 miles northwest of Saxonburg at the St. Fidelis Seminary in Herman, PA. When the unrelenting rains of Tropical Storm Agnes finally subsided in 1972, Jerry Presley told me that the seminarians picked up “half a bushel basket” full of dead martins. I’m uncertain as to whether this colony survived Agnes. It may have, but was defunct by the mid to late 1970’s