Some morning late this month, the first purple martin of the season, a scout winging up the Mississippi flyway ahead of the flocks, will swoop into downtown Memphis, looking for a nest for the spring.
Developer Henry Turley is ready. He has purple-martin hotels, little birdhouses perched on long poles atop several historic buildings he has been restoring.
"If the scout likes the house he finds, you can tell it," Turley said. "He sings this real happy song. He flies, around, checks it out thoroughly. And a week or so later, here comes his gang, ready to take occupancy and build their nests."
But why would a hard-bitten developer care about purple martins? The answer is mosquitoes: Memphis lies directly on the Mississippi River, on flatlands that sometimes generate fearful infestations. A single purple martin allegedly can consume 2,000 mosquitoes a day.
That's why Turley some years ago built his first purple-martin house, to "protect" his first restored building in old Memphis. Along vast stretches of the river there are martin poles and houses in backyards, so Turley figured: Why not the city?
You'll fly far to find a city official as intent on bringing wildlife to town as Turley. I met him by accident, on an arranged tour of restored downtown Memphis. But the encounter with Turley left me with the haunting question: What place is there in cities for our feathered -- or, for that matter, our furry -- friends?
A bigger place than in the past, it turns out. Gomer Jones, president of the National Institute for Urban Wildlife, claims that the number and variety of wild animals in urban areas are increasing. Why? Urban air and water are less polluted as a result of the cleanup efforts of the 1970s. A recent count in York's Central Park found 14 mammal species, ranging from muskrats and shrews to flying squirrels. Ninety years ago, the park had but five.
Check where you will and more wildlife seems about. There are hordes of friendly Canada geese in Fort Collins, Colo., and mule deer in Boulder, Colo. Increased numbers of coyotes, who refused to leave Los Angeles canyons when the humans moved in, thrive. There are so many raccoons in the District of Columbia that officials have feared a rabies infestation.
Austin, Tex., has thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats that took over the understructure of a bridge as if it were designed as a bat cave. Boston's cemeteries have a count of 95 bird species, including the blue heron, belted kingfishers and the black-billed cuckoo.
The peregrine falcon, so imperiled by DDt poisoning that it was extinct east of the Mississippi, has enjoyed a spectacular comeback, aided and abetted by a Cornell ornithologist who placed mates in such cities as New York, Norfolk, Philadelphia and Baltimore. The same bird species has returned to Chicago, Boston and Montreal, everywhere finding skyscrapers a neat subsitute for its native sea cliffs and mountain ridges.
Peregrines prey on prgeons. Turley said he'd like to import some to Memphis to "cut back on our squalid pigeon overpopulation." Not all transplants work, though. With the cooperation of the Memphis Zoo, turley tried to get some horned owls started in his town, to prey on Mississippi River rats. But the two juvenile owls, after weeks of gorging on the tasty white rats the zoo people fed them, skipped town.
Turley was disappointed but not daunted. his brother and friends helped put up more poles and houses for the purple martins. "We'll be doubling our circus -- or at least our accommodations. You need to keep expanding because the babies want come back to their home. So you have to keep enlarging the housing stock," he said.
Turley has the best place of all to watch when martins return from Central America andSouth America to their Memphis roost. Last year he completed renovation of Memphis' historic old Cotton Exchange building, and kept the 12th floor penthouse office for himself. The view, of city and river and swooping birds, is unparalleled.
Turley is having fun while doing good, for the city and himself. it's a formula every town could use.