US concert hall to chop down trees to combat threat from thousands of purple birds

12 April 2022, 18:16

A purple martin; these birds stay in Nashville for two months during the summer, before migrating south
A purple martin; these birds stay in Nashville for two months during the summer, before migrating south. Picture: Getty

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

A symphony hall in Nashville, Tennessee, has said it will remove its surrounding trees to deter the migrating birds from roosting near the concert venue.

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In summer 2020 an estimated 150,000 purple martins turned the trees around the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville into their home for two months.

Arriving in July, these brightly-coloured birds have visited the city of music since 1996, and can be a sensory overload for visiting tourists, who reach for their phones to capture the evening swirl of swallows.

However, while it may only be a sensory overload for tourists, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center which sits in downtown Nashville, is existentially threatened by the soaring swarm of songbirds.

The music centre, which is home to the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, faced a clean up bill of $60,000 after the birds left in September to migrate to South America for the winter.

The concert hall’s historic limestone, along with the adjacent pavements, were coated with the birds’ droppings, and the trees surrounding the venue were left drooping and damaged from the thousands of feathered residents who had perched on their branches.

Read more: Farewell to birdsong? Study reveals the dawn chorus is getting quieter and quieter

According to Nashville Symphony CEO Alan Valentine, the clean-up was so expensive as they had to power wash the entire building due to the large build-up. Continuing clean up on this scale could cause serious long term damage to the neoclassical building.

Because of the cost and practicality of this situation, Valentine explained, “it is not operationally sustainable for us to continue to welcome them”.

To counteract the significant damage to the concert hall and surrounding area, this year, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center is planning to cut down 41 severely damaged trees early this month.

New smaller trees will be planted in the next one to two years, such as Chinese Pistaches, Royal White Redbuds, Sweet Bay Magnolias and Yoshino Cherry trees, to accommodate some birds near the venue. Plans are being led by local conservation groups and tree surgeons.

Read more: Spectacular bird chorus sings Mozart opera duet in colourful short film

Some local conservation groups however, are disappointed with the decision. Jim Gregory from the Nashville Tree Conservation Corps said, “That’s yet another example of Nashville being robbed of something that makes it unique.”

The corps are disheartened the symphony has not taken further steps to work with local conservationists on a solution which would allow the birds to continue roosting near the cultural landmark.

“To me, [the birds migration here is] a fundraising opportunity,” said Gregory. “Why not have a symphony with the birds once a year? Of course under canopy. Play some of the music that was inspired by birds: Mozart or Haydn.”

Read more: 13 pieces of classical music inspired by birdsong

Purple martins roost at sunset
Purple martins roost at sunset. Picture: Getty

Purple martins are migratory songbirds and aerial insectivores; a group which has declined by 32 percent since 1970.

Both the Tennessee Wildlife Federation and The Nature Conservancy have confirmed with the symphony that removing the trees should not be harmful to the migrating bird population as they will be able to find other locations, further away from the concert venue.