A Flock of Beautiful Birds in a City Is a Miracle, a Disaster and a Conundrum

NASHVILLE — In the summer of 2020, a massive flock of purple martins set up camp in the trees surrounding the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, in the heart of downtown Nashville. The birds had left their nesting territories, both nearby and farther north, and were gathering in preparation for the fall migration. They stayed for two months.

The flock was a glorious sight — 150,000 birds descending from the sky night after night — but the problems they created for the cash-strapped symphony were extensive. Imagine the weight of so many birds on a few dozen trees, the stench of so many bird droppings on a public plaza. For the symphony, shuttered by the pandemic, unsure when it would ever be able to hold concerts again, the birds were pouring salt into a hemorrhaging wound.

When word got out about the symphony’s troubles, though, the local conservation community stepped up. A fundraising campaign by the Tennessee Wildlife Federation and The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee helped pay the costs of pressure washing the limestone building. It was a true feel-good story at a time when everyone desperately needed to feel good about something.

In September, the birds departed for their wintering grounds in South America, but the pandemic was still raging when they returned the following summer, this time in even greater numbers, causing an even bigger mess and even more damage to the trees. It became clear that this was not a one-time miracle that could be managed through the generosity of bird lovers.

Droppings from purple martins on and around Schemerhorn Center property.
Credit…William DeShazer for The New York Times

The pandemic has cost the Nashville Symphony $26 million in lost revenue. During the shutdown, the organization temporarily furloughed 132 full-time staff members and more than 300 part-time employees. Since resuming concerts last fall, it has struggled to fill seats as first Delta and then Omicron raged. Through it all, the organization has spent more than $100,000 cleaning up after the purple martins, a figure that far surpasses the donations raised for that purpose by conservation groups.

If the birds come back this year, with the Schermerhorn fully open again, their presence will be catastrophic. No audience wants to enter a symphony hall covered in bird droppings, but closing the building during the purple martins’ next visit would cost another $4 million in lost revenue. This is why Alan D. Valentine, president and chief executive of the Nashville Symphony, calls the birds “an existential threat” to his organization.

Mr. Valentine and his team have decided that the best thing for everyone, purple martins included, is to cut down the severely damaged elms before the birds return and replace them with smaller trees that will make the symphony grounds a less attractive roost site.

When radio station WPLN ’s Caroline Eggers first broke the news, a great hue and cry arose in the local conservation community, and far beyond it, too. The symphony’s plan pleases no one: not wildlife advocates, who don’t want the purple martin roost disturbed; not tree advocates, who want to protect the urban tree canopy; not even symphony officials, who want to go back to holding concerts before full houses.

The conflict boils down to this: A magnificent gathering of birds, who are facing a host of human-created environmental stressors like habitat destruction and climate change, has in turn created a host of bird-related environmental stressors for human beings. The birds just want to gather in a safe place while they fatten up on insects for the long journey to South America. The symphony just wants to play music again. Both are simply doing what their own species does best.

I love purple martins, and it’s easy for me to understand why conservation activists might view the symphony’s decision as a betrayal of a sacred trust. The birds’ presence here — despite this city’s unplanned and poorly regulated growth, despite developers’ relentless destruction of mature trees — feels like nothing less than a miracle. The people who are mobilizing to protect them are showing what love in action looks like.

But I sympathize with the symphony, too. I have spent nearly three decades making my own yard hospitable to songbirds, but I wouldn’t want 150,000 birds roosting in my own fragile trees. It’s hard for me to admit that, even to myself, but it’s true.

A flock of purple martins descend upon downtown Nashville.Credit…William DeShazer for The New York Times

This conflict is a perfect example of how complex it can be to make urban settings welcoming for wildlife, even when all invested parties are proceeding with good will. Suitable roost sites in Nashville keep falling to development, and the purple martins are bringing into stark relief the need for cities to grow in ways that are both wildlife-friendly and safe for humans. This city is finding out just how disruptive it can be — to all species involved — when they don’t.

“If I could wave a magic wand, we would figure out how the birds could be embraced and engaged in a way that made it possible for symphony patrons and downtown businesses to coexist with the purple martins,” Terry Cook, the state director of the Nature Conservancy in Tennessee, told me. “But I’ve looked at this from many different aspects, and it’s difficult to find an approach that meets everybody’s needs or desires. I don’t think there’s a simple answer.”

The question is complicated by the fact that purple martin roosts are by nature dynamic and unpredictable. Sometimes a roost site is destroyed by development. Sometimes a chosen site becomes so damaged by the birds themselves that the trees can no longer support the flock. And it’s not always clear why the birds choose one site over another. Purple martins have used a variety of roosts in the Nashville area, at least since the mid-1990s. It’s possible the birds will abandon their roost on the symphony grounds of their own accord.

Tree advocates have seized on that uncertainty to point out that removing 41 mature trees from a cityscape with a dwindling tree canopy is a permanent solution to what may well be a temporary problem. “Birds move around,” Judson Newbern, a volunteer with the Nashville Tree Conservation Corps, pointed out in an interview. “Are we going to cut down every tree in Nashville where they roost in the future? This is just not a sustainable solution for the city.” The nonprofit would like to find a way to deflect the birds and persuade them to select another roost site — by covering the symphony’s trees in netting, for example, or by turning off the lights that attract purple martins.

But bird advocates point out that such attempts would be far more stressful to the birds than it would be to remove the trees now, before they get here. Some of the birds would inevitably get tangled in the netting, panicking the others, and frantic birds are more likely to crash into windows and buildings. “Disrupting the roost holds a lot of potential downsides for the purple martins,” Mr. Cook said.

Few situations involving wild animals in cities lend themselves to simple solutions: If a coyote starts killing neighborhood pets, for example, some residents will propose killing the coyote. Others will argue for keeping pets indoors. As divergent as they are, both answers represent the simplest possible — and least permanent — solutions to a problem that is much bigger than a single territorial coyote.

When human activity intrudes farther and farther into wildlife habitat, many animals will die, and many will move on. But some animals will adapt to live among us, and not all their adaptive strategies will be convenient. When the purple martins first established a roost at the Nashville Symphony, the response from both the symphony and conservationists was a model for making room for wildlife. It was also a stopgap response to an unusual and seemingly temporary circumstance. And stopgap measures will no longer suffice.

The fact that a vast flock of purple martins has made Nashville’s symphony center its staging ground for the fall migration isn’t a Nashville problem. It’s a human problem. Every day the planet becomes more crowded, and every day these human-wildlife conflicts worsen. When the goal is coexistence, then the simple answers on either end of the spectrum — get rid of the birds; leave the birds alone — won’t serve either species for the long term.

A purple martin.Credit…Getty Images

Every growing city in the country, everygrowing city in the world, must make a plan for long-term coexistence with wildlife. Accommodating wild creatures can’t be the sole responsibility, or the sole expense, of the people who happen to own or occupy the spaces where they take up residence.

“We’re not going to object to the removal of the trees,” said the Nature Conservancy’s Terry Cook. “But we’d love to find a net conservation win out of this — thinking beyond tree replacements at the symphony to how we can add trees to the urban canopy, using telemetry studies to identify new roost sites, using education to help all of us embrace Nashville as a bird-friendly city.” His wish list goes on and on. “I do see opportunities to do something exciting and meaningful here.”

The good news is that this controversy has brought a lot of people to the negotiating table: not just representatives from various tree and wildlife organizations but also from the mayor’s office, Metro Council and Metro Parks, plus tourism officials, landscape architects and many others intent upon solving this problem together.

In an interview, Mr. Valentine took pains to highlight the symphony’s commitment to both trees and birds. “We have more trees on our campus than anybody else in the neighborhood, and we’re committed to replacing not just our own trees but to increasing the tree canopy beyond our campus,” he said. “We care very much about birds and about conservation, but at the same time we’re but one piece of a much larger set of issues that confront our city and probably lots of cities across the country. This is an opportunity to really focus some energy in our community around these issues.”

Or, as Mr. Newbern of the Nashville Tree Conservation Corps puts it, “This is a chance to help Nashville find its better self.”

How can we increase the urban tree canopy in a way that provides necessary habitat for wildlife without wholly disrupting human life? How can we make Nashville a place that serves as a case study, even a role model, for other cities trying to find a way to preserve green space and coexist with their wild neighbors? These are questions we ought to have asked decades ago, but I am grateful that my city is asking them now.

And we have a magnificent, indescribably beautiful, life-transforming flock of purple martins to thank for inspiring us to do so.

Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”

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