Bird and plant expert donates purple martin houses to Longwood

Purple martins at a modern metal house in the Idea Garden at Longwood Gardens.
Purple martins at a modern metal house in the Idea Garden at Longwood Gardens.
Posted: May 19, 2012

Growing up in Broomall, Jesse Grantham remembers two unscripted moments that played an outsized role in shaping the career he would choose and the person he would become.

Moment No. 1: He’s 8, in the car with his parents, on the way to pick up the babysitter. Once there, he looks up and sees a purple martin rockin’ and a-rollin’ through an old sycamore tree. He knows about these aerial acrobats from his bird books, but up close, as they dive-bomb for flying insects, they’re wildly entertaining.

“Really turned me on,” he says.

Moment No. 2: Grantham is about 16, a senior at Great Valley High School in Malvern. His parents, accomplished backyard gardeners, invite him on one of their frequent trips to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square. “ ‘OK, I’ll go with you this one time,’ ” he says.

Grantham is dumbstruck by the massive American hollies by the Conservatory. “I had never been to a garden. I was totally mesmerized,” he recalls.

Is there anyone who doesn’t believe in the power of childhood experiences, even fleeting ones? Talking to Grantham, a horticulturist, field botanist, and biologist who’s now 60, is to be reminded that youthful passions can be sparked at any moment, often with unwitting parental influence, and that sometimes, the excitement lasts a lifetime.

So it’s been with Grantham, who retired in January after a long career that began “on a whim” at Longwood. He applied for a job there one week after graduating from the University of Georgia, where he’d studied humanities. “I could have taught Shelley or Keats but I thought, ‘I’m done with that,’?” he says.

For five years at Longwood, he experimented with plants collected around the world, including the now-famous New Guinea impatiens, and taught ornithology. He also established a bird-nesting program that still delights visitors today. “Horticulture became a real interest, but I also had this interest in birds and was trying to make the connection between birds and plants,” Grantham says.

He then spent 24 years with the National Audubon Society, working on wetlands and other habitat issues at the society’s nature centers and bird sanctuaries in the West and South and promoting gardening for wildlife, a concept that only now is growing in popularity. He also spent a good chunk of his career with the California Condor Recovery Program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, eventually becoming its coordinator.

Throughout, this marriage of interests — birds and plants — has been remarkably regret-free. “I wish I could start all over again,” Grantham says.

In retirement, he kind of is. He’s experimenting in his own garden in Ojai, Calif., with hummingbird-pollinated plants, such as salvia and penstemon, to see which produce the most nectar, how much sugar the nectar contains, and which plant species are favorites of which hummingbirds.

“Just for fun,” he says.

Fun — and purple martins — brought Grantham back to Longwood in early May to the Idea Garden, where he donated and installed some vintage martin houses, now restored, that he was given as a teenager. Also, he has the time now, and he wanted to do something for a place that was so important to his career.

Siting bird houses may sound simple, but with purple martins, it’s tricky. They like their houses set atop poles 30 to 100 feet from human housing, and painted white to reflect heat and offset male courtship display. They don’t like wires nearby, or vines or shrubs around the pole.

Even with all that, a safe nest is no sure thing. English house sparrows and European starlings often commandeer martin houses, while predator squirrels, snakes, raccoons, hawks, crows, and owls have been known to reach inside and grab eggs and birds.

Overall, the martin population in North America has been stable over the last 40 years, but parts of Canada and the United States, including New England, the Great Lakes region, and Pennsylvania, are seeing a decline, according to John Tautin, executive director of the 5,000-member Purple Martin Conservation Association, based in Erie, Pa. Noticeably fewer birds are returning to previous nesting sites or venturing in at all. Possible reasons include adverse weather conditions, habitat loss, pesticide use, and the fact that young people aren’t showing the kind of interest in martins that Grantham developed early on.

Like other fans of this chatty, darkly iridescent bird, Grantham is captivated by the idea that “martins need people and are very comfortable with them.”

In the eastern United States, the purple martin is unique in that need. It no longer nests normally in the wild, in abandoned woodpecker holes in trees; it depends entirely on humans to provide nesting space, thanks to events that happened thousands of years ago.

Native Americans began attracting martins with gourd houses because they were fun to watch and they controlled harmful flying insects, such as wasps, drone bees, and beetles. This practice of providing what amounts to unnatural nesting space — ornithologists call the trend “tradition shift” — was later adopted by European colonists, and continues to fascinate enthusiasts.

“This is a bird that will nest right in your backyard. People love the intimacy. These birds bring a lot of life to the site, they’re flying around, they’re singing, coming and going, feeding their young — all this action you get in your back yard if you have a colony,” says Tautin, whose association is trying to encourage more gardeners and birders to install martin houses. (For information, go to

No encouragement was needed at Longwood, which — in addition to its growing martin colony — hosts about 200 boxes for Eastern bluebirds, wood ducks, screech owls, bats, and other fliers that, unlike martins, also nest in the wild. Volunteers maintain the boxes, lead bird walks, and share the best time to look for martins with visitors: Right now, as the birds build their nests, that’s in the morning, although if it’s cold or rainy, there are fewer insects about and thus, less martin activity.

During his recent visit, Grantham clearly enjoyed seeing how the bird program he started decades ago has flourished. Something else was worth celebrating, too: It was here, in this famous garden, that his career took flight.

Contact Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or Read her blog at

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