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'Model' home going up for display

WILLMAR -- Dick Doll is neither a real estate agent or a home builder, but he's about to put a model home on display for all to see.

It's a home for purple martins, and will soon be available for viewing outside of the Willmar Pet Hospital, 705 Minnesota Highway 40.

Purple martins make great neighbors, according to Doll. He and fellow birding enthusiast Randy Frederickson are putting the house up to encourage others to erect their own purple martin houses.

Purple martins depend entirely on the housing provided for them by people. Their numbers are on the decline in Minnesota and much of the country.

Fortunately, their numbers are on the increase in the backyard of Dick Doll's home in Willmar. Poles in his backyard hold 46 "units" of congregate housing for purple martins. Last year the units produced 185 chicks. Doll said 182 of them were able to fledge.

A special treat for him was the opportunities to watch some of the young birds make their first, clumsy attempts at flight.

This year, Doll is putting up housing holding 50 units for his birds, and anticipates they will fill fast. The first birds in his colony usually begin arriving by the middle of April.

Purple martins are "very loyal" birds, according to Frederickson. The colonies will return year-after-year once established.

Doll knows what his tenants are looking for. His martin houses offer larger, 10-inch deep units for the birds instead of the smaller-sized units that once were considered the norm.

He also has "trained" his birds to accept supplemental feeding. Purple martins are voracious eaters of flying insects. When a cold snap hit a few years ago and knocked out the bugs, Doll took it upon himself to feed crickets to his hungry birds and see them through a few lean days.

It was no easy trick to convince birds accustomed to fast food dining to suddenly adapt to the slow food movement of wingless insects.

The older adults in the colony have not forgotten the lessons taught them, however. He said his colony is still acclimated to supplemental feeding and he can offer the birds help if the need arises.

For the most part, hosting purple martins is easy. Doll has his houses on poles with a pulley system that allows him to lower the houses for periodic inspections. He checks for possible parasites like mites, and makes certain that sparrow and starlings aren't trying to move in.

Last year, a non-game wildlife worker with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources banded the birds in his colony.

Otherwise, his main responsibility as landlord involves cleaning the houses at the end of the season and making sure they're ready for the tenants when they arrive in spring.

In return, the birds provide a summer-long show. Doll said he especially enjoys the steady chatter of the birds and watching their aerobatic moves as they feed.

Any place that offers an open area for the birds, and is within a mile or so of water, can offer housing for the birds. Frederickson said a rule of thumb is to keep purple martin houses at least 40 feet away from trees or houses. The birds need the maneuvering room to feed on insects.

Also, trees provide perches from which Cooper's hawks and other raptors will dive-bomb the purple martins. Open space provides the martins with their best defense.

Purple martin houses are easy to build, according to Doll and Frederickson. There are also very good houses available commercially. They both strongly recommend only using martin houses that are 10-inches deep.

They also recommend a pulley system so that the houses can be easily raised and lowered. The poles should also include a guard to keep raccoons and other, four-legged predators from climbing them.

Doll said he never needs to watch the calendar to know when spring arrives: The songs of his purple martins always announce its arrival.

The only downside of it all comes in late August or early September, when the gregarious tenants take off for their winter homes in the tropics. "It's like your neighbors are gone," he said.