The purple martins will return to Richmond this summer for a few weeks to hang out in the skies above Shockoe Bottom and in its Bradford pear trees. In recent years, it has become something of a tradition for Richmonders to gather by the hundreds to watch the birds. The largest of the North American swallows, the birds known as "aerial acrobats" — some of whom are also known as Buddy, Skittles or Peaches, depending on their given bird name — began appearing in large numbers around Richmond in 2007, drawn to the region by its warm summertime climate, access to high-paying insect-eating jobs, our rich Civil War history and the swanky bar at the five-star Jefferson.
Size and Color
From bill to tail, an adult purple martin averages about 8 inches long, has a glossy, bluish-black sheen and could probably stand to lose a few pounds according to their wives. Females are duller in color, with patches of gray on their chest and browns on their backs, and they regularly whine to their husbands about how they have nothing to wear despite a roost full of little-worn clothing.
Marked by their fast speed, dive-bombing and quick changes of direction while flying, purple martins frequently daydream about what it'd be like to simply walk around, yearning to someday slip on a pair of slacks and tennis shoes and casually move from one place to the other without taking their feet off the ground. Purple martins are noisy and can be identified by a unique bird call in which they repeatedly scream at the top of their lungs, "I'm a purple martin!" If you hear that sound, it's likely that the bird you are dealing with is either a purple martin or an eastern bluebird pretending to be a purple martin, as bluebirds are known for their mischievous pranks.
While no one knows precisely why the birds flock to Shockoe Bottom, many scientists speculate that the martins, migrating to South America for the winter, are lured by the various nightclubs and fine-dining options in the downtown area. Although the birds eat insects as they fly through the air, many of the purple martins eventually get tired of the taste, check Twitter for the location of the Boka truck and go crush some gourmet tacos.
Gone to the Birds, Richmond's Purple Martin Festival, takes place on Aug. 3, from 6 to 9 p.m., at the 17th Street Farmers' Market.