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Bird Symphony

NASHVILLE — At first they circle high in the evening sky. But as
night descends, they, too, begin to descend, bird by bird, one at a time, and
then all in a rush: 150,000 purple martins swirling together, each bird calling
to the others in the failing light as they sweep past the tops of buildings in
the heart of downtown Nashville. To anyone watching from the ground, they look
like one great airborne beast, one unmistakable, singular mind.

Their music grows louder and louder as the circles tighten and the birds swing
lower and lower, settling in the branches of sidewalk trees, or swerving to take
off again as new waves of birds dip down. They circle the building and return.
They lift off, circle, reverse, settle, lift off again. Again and again and
again, until finally it is dark. Their chittering voices fall silent. Their
rustling wings fall still.

In one way of looking at it, this rescue operation mimics the long relationship
between human beings and purple martins themselves: Even as we are responsible
for the birds’ troubles, we are also responsible for their survival. The
population east of the Rocky Mountains, where 98 percent of all purple martins
live, “is completely reliant on people putting up bird houses for them to
reproduce in,” said Mr. Siegrist. “If people didn’t do that, the bird would go
extinct in the majority of its range. Each one of those birds putting on that
spectacular display in downtown Nashville exists because people cared enough to
put up a bird house. Each one of those birds came from somebody’s backyard.”
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