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

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By Margaret Renkl

Ms. Renkl is a contributing Opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.

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.

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.

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.

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