purple martin

Neighbors have escalated a spat over Heather Allen's growing purple martin colony, which at times is in the dozens if not more than 100. They have placed a plastic hawk and played hawk cries to discourage the birds. Brad Nettles/Staff

Recorded hawk calls, spotlights, a huge wiggling balloon — next-door neighbors are in a bird war in a Hanahan cul-de-sac.

It's all about the returning flocks of migrating purple martins, and their poop.

The Allens love the birds.

The Brocks don't.

"I'm attempting to scare the birds away before they nest," said Matthew Brock about the balloon he set up to run the martins off.

"Hanahan is a bird sanctuary, so once they nest I can't do it," he added. "I'm not trying to deprive her of her pleasure with the birds. If she'd cut back to the one box, 20 or 25 birds, I wouldn't have a problem. But she keeps adding on."

Heather Allen, however, is enraptured by the martins.

"They're beautiful," she said.

The escalation in the Eagle Landing subdivision came as the single purple martin box in the Allens' snug yard fledged into a complex of four poles and more than 50 nest holes.

The Brocks reacted by stepping up their campaign against the swarm, placing a plastic display hawk on their mailbox and playing the predator raptor's calls, powering up the writhing balloon and shining their spotlights at night.

The suburban spat has become movie-like, complete with a call to the police. It leaves homeowners around the dispute shaking their heads while trying not to take sides.

Allen claims the colony holds maybe 50 of the migrating birds at a time. Brock says it was more than 100 last year.

Allen says the birds mostly are clean and she regularly offers to wipe up whatever droppings end up on her neighbors' cars and properties.

Brock says it's still a nuisance.

purple martin

Heather Allen has four purple martin roosts in her backyard. Neighbors have escalated a spat over her growing purple martin colony, which at times is in the dozens if not more than 100. Brad Nettles/Staff

He plays the hawk calls but she plays martin-attracting calls.

The spotlight might bother the birds but it's security, too.

And in fairness, the Brocks do like birds. They keep one of their own, a cockatiel.

Allen has been in love with purple martins since she saw her first colony as a 7-year-old. She talks with a light in her eyes about cradling in her palm nestlings that try to fly too soon and end up on the ground.

With so many threats to songbirds today and the martins' dependence on humans to nest, she can't do enough for them, she said.

purple martin

Heather Allen's neighbors have escalated a spat over her growing purple martin colony, which at times is in the dozens if not more than 100. Brad Nettles/Staff

Purple martins are the largest swallows, flitting aerial marvels that eat insects on the fly. They migrate from Central and South America each spring to breed mostly in the eastern United States. They're not endangered; there's an estimated 7 million of them out there, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

But like songbirds everywhere they are in gradual decline, largely due to the loss of insects to pesticide use and erosion of habitat.

As migratory birds they are protected from disturbance under federal law. Hanahan's bird sanctuary ordinance reinforces that.

"It shall be unlawful to kill, maim, or injure any wild or migratory bird or to destroy or to rob or molest eggs or nests in breeding places of any birds," the city's law reads.

An oddity about the martin is it has become dependent on humans to provide colony houses, having morphed away from tree hollows and other cavities for the protection humans offer from predation. So while you can't disturb purple martin nesting, you can provide for it.

purple martin

Purple Martin's return home to Heather Allen's backyard at dusk Tuesday, March 12, 2019. Neighbors have escalated a spat over her growing purple martin colony, which at times is in the dozens if not more than 100. Brad Nettles/Staff

Conservation groups encourage that.

"Putting up a Purple Martin house is like installing a miniature neighborhood in your backyard," Cornell says on its website.

But there is a mess factor. To get down to the dirt of this spat: as the martins gathered at the Allens on a recent afternoon, the yards, driveways and vehicles in the cul-de-sac didn't look particularly splotched up. But some of the neighbors do park their cars — and in one case, a boat — in the garage.

"We get a little poop on the car outside, but Heather always offers to take care of it," said Jesse Frail, one of the neighbors.

The martins, meanwhile, keep the neighborhood insect-free, she said. "They eat bugs like you wouldn't believe. They pick them right out of the air. To me they're not a problem, they're a joy."

As a rule, martins tend to be clean birds — flying off to relieve themselves rather than foul the colony, said Jen Tyrrell, a bird-friendly communities coordinator for Audubon South Carolina. Audubon offers workshops on keeping colonies and the general standard is to keep as many as you can manage, she said.

"It's hard to imagine them being a nuisance," Tyrrell said.

Not in the cul-de-sac. Brock said he is putting together documentation to go to civil court.

Hanahan police officers responded to a call last weekend.

"No criminal violations were observed by the responding officer," said Lt. Michael Fowler, police spokesman.

"The resident was referred to DNR (the S.C. Department of Natural Resources) to explore exactly what protections are afforded to the Purple Martins under the 'Bird Sanctuary' designation."

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Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.

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