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House Calls

Arnie Hoersten, senior technology manager in the IT department at Ohio Northern University, spends most of his workday administering the University’s telephone system, making sure that calls are placed and received all across campus. However, the calls he receives during his lunch break are the ones that he looks forward to the most.

Arnie Hoersten tending to a purple martin "apartment house"
located near ONU's Green Monster.

Nearly every day from spring to fall, Hoersten can be found on the Green Monster having lunch with his favorite species of songbird, the purple martin (progne subis.)

“I’ll never forget when I was a 10-year-old kid and I heard that first one. I spun around and looked, and he was just gliding; he wasn’t flapping his wings at all,” says Hoersten. “I was just in awe of that bird. I was hooked.”

Hoersten doesn’t have to look far to find a purple martin today. ONU’s campus is home to a colony of 38 matched pairs of the birds, and Hoersten knows just where to look to find one. After all, he put them there.

In 2004, Hoersten took his passion for purple martin conservation to Terry Keiser, chair of ONU’s Department of Biological and Allied Health Sciences. His plan was to establish a purple martin colony on campus, but he needed help to do so. Keiser agreed, granting him funding to acquire birdhouses and other materials needed start the martin colony.

The purple martin “apartment houses” are easy to spot west of the woods on campus. Clustered onto tall steel poles, the white gourd-shaped birdhouses provide the ideal nesting habitat for the birds. According to Hoersten, these oddly shaped houses are the “magic bullet” for attracting purple martins. They are fitted with wire owl guards and thin openings that are resistant to predatory birds that tend to destroy purple martin nests.

These precautions serve to maximize survivability for the birds and their young. Aside from these practical measures, the location of the martin houses provides another scenic addition to campus. Serious birdwatchers, amateur enthusiasts and recreationists alike are all able to enjoy the martin colony on campus.

“It’s aesthetically significant, and I think ecologically it’s significant,” says Keiser. “The fact that you have these birds, it’s not for people to just say, ‘Oh, there’s those martins.’ But, I think, in the overall sense of ecology on a campus, these birds are very unusual. I don’t know if anyone else does anything like this, but I’m certain there would be very few.”

Hoersten’s conservation efforts are now more evident than ever. The birdhouses seem to have made a long-term difference for martin populations. In the past few years, the colony has experienced dramatic growth thanks to Hoersten’s hard work and dedication.

Starting with only a single pair on campus in 2005, and possibly no martins at all before his involvement, ONU now features one of the largest colonies in this part of the state.

“I think we’re going to have close to 200 eggs,” says Hoersten. “They won’t all hatch and survive, but we’re probably going to produce at least 150 young martins. Of those that hatch, 10 percent, or 15 birds, will come back to nest and lay eggs next year.”

Purple martins will return to ONU at almost the same time every year, around the first week of April. They lay their eggs by mid-May, and fledglings are usually able to leave the nest by mid-July. Later in the summer, the birds fly to a large pre-migratory site near Lake Erie, where they prepare for the long migration back down to Brazil.

According to Hoersten, purple martins themselves are not all that rare, but martin colonies are becoming so. He has worked extensively in Hardin and Allen counties to develop new colonies and concentrations of martins in Ada and the surrounding communities.

“To me, it’s not work; it’s just fun,” says Hoersten. “If you have a passion for something, you’re going to work on it.”

—Steve Saunier
Political Science major
Centerburg, OH