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At Louisville Auto Plant, Purple Martins Thrive

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It’s hard to characterize Ford’s Louisville Assembly Plant as anything but industrial. Around the back of the plant, by the paint shop, large trucks occasionally rumble by. The gigantic plant where the company manufactures Ford Escape SUVs stretches out on three sides.

But over the industrial noise, there’s a cacophony of chirping birds. Two poles rise up, together holding 40 white plastic gourds. Around the gourds, purple martins are flying, swooping, and keeping watch on nearby power lines.

Larry Melcher points to the birds.

“These birds migrate all the way from South America to North America just to breed and raise young. And they choose Louisville Assembly Plant,” he says.

Melcher is a pipefitter at the plant, and the unofficial guardian of Ford’s purple martin colony. He’s been taking care of the birds for 16 years, but he says purple martins at the plant pre-date that. They were originally brought in to the Louisville plant to help keep mosquitoes under control, and rumor has it that Ford founder Henry Ford kept purple martins, too.

The birds are unusual, in that they were trained centuries ago to rely on humans. Melcher says people and places that put up gourds or martin houses for them to nest in play an essential role in maintaining the species.

“They almost entirely depend on human-supplied nest sites,” he says. “They don’t nest in the wild.”

Melcher goes up to one of the poles, and begins lowering it. He takes off a gourd, and opens it up.

“I’ve got young in these nests that are just about ready to fledge," he says. "And what that means, they’re just about ready to jump from the nest for the first time.”

Four little purple martins are nestled inside the gourd, staring up at us. Melcher says pretty soon, they’ll take their first flight. Shortly after, the colony will head back to South America. And next year, some of the same birds may be back at the Louisville Assembly Plant, building nests of their own.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.