Purple Martins of Epcot

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Walt Disney was always a firm believer in the importance of conservation and, in particular, the protection of all animals. In an earlier column, I shared some of Walt's words about his philosophy.

"[Walt] was very conservative except in one particular—he was a very strong environmentalist," recalled screenwriter Maurice Rapf who worked at the Disney Studios in the late 1940s on several films.

Certainly, evidence of Walt's philosophy about the need to help protect the environment and animals can clearly be seen in his approach to the story of Bambi, where man is the villain who, in his carelessness, destroys the forest and threatens the lives of the animals.

Walt's investment in a series of award-winning innovative True-Life Adventure films in the 1950s was initially seen as a crazy and unmarketable idea by almost everyone, including the film distributor, RKO, who at first refused to offer them to movie theaters. They didn't want to distribute the first documentary short, Seal Island (1949), nor the first full-length feature, The Living Desert (1953).

However, Walt was very convincing, especially when the films won Oscars.

As Walt commented, "Our films have provided thrilling entertainment of educational quality and have played a major part in the worldwide increase in appreciation and understanding of nature. These films have demonstrated that facts can be as fascinating as fiction, truth as beguiling as myth, and have opened the eyes of young and old to the beauties of the outdoor world and aroused their desire to conserve priceless natural assets."

Even today, these films are still effective reminders of the wonders of nature thanks to impressive visuals, evocative music, and humor.

Here is the complete listing of Walt's "True-Life Adventures" films:

  • 1949
    • Seal Island
  • 1950
    • In Beaver Valley
  • 1951
    • Nature's Half Acre
  • 1952
    • The Olympic Elk
    • Water Birds
  • 1953
    • The Living Desert
    • Bear Country
    • Prowlers of the Everglades
  • 1954
    • The Vanishing Prairie
  • 1955
    • The African Lion
  • 1956
    • Secrets of Life
  • 1957
    • White Wilderness
  • 1960
    • Jungle Cat

Disneynature, an independent film label of The Walt Disney Company, founded on April 21, 2008, continues that tradition today with the release of films like Earth, Oceans, African Cats and Chimpanzee.

Marjorie Davis, Walt's niece, remembered an incident that took place at Walt's home in Los Angeles. "One time, the gardener was complaining because the squirrels were eating all the fruit. He had planted all these beautiful fruit trees down the canyon by the house. [The gardener had planned on poisoning the squirrels but Walt wouldn't allow it.]. [Walt] just said, 'Plant some more. Plant enough for everybody. Look, you can go to the market to buy fruit. They can't."

One visitor to the Disney Studio, Mrs. Ted Cauger, recalled that while they were walking outside, Walt gently picked up a worm from a tree and, holding it up, lectured, "This is one of God's creatures…and we don't harm them."

In a 1956 television Public Service Announcement, he stated, "You've probably heard people talk about conservation. Well, conservation isn't just the business of a few people. It's a matter that concerns all of us. It's a science whose principles are written in the oldest code in the world, the laws of nature. The natural resources of our vast continent are not inexhaustible. But if we will use our riches wisely, if we will protect our wildlife and preserve our lakes and streams, these things will last us for generations to come."

One of the things that Walt Disney World has done exceptionally well, even from its opening in 1971, is paid attention to the land and the animals and truly honored Walt's spirit in the process. Of course, there have been a handful of regrettable exceptions over the decades but, overall, I am very impressed by Walt Disney World's continued commitment to the environment.

I am especially impressed when Walt Disney World does something really nice in that area without using it as just a publicity device. In fact, one of those efforts has been clearly visible to guests for over a decade and a half and yet has received little or no recognition, not even from the guests themselves.

What is purple, has two tiny wings and is associated with Epcot?

If you answered "Figment", then make sure you visit the Friends of Figment website.

If, however, you were clever enough to read the title of this column, then you know the correct answer is purple martins, even if you have no idea what that answer means.

Sometimes, hidden treasures at Walt Disney World are in plain sight but are ignored by guests as they race to the newest attractions like the recent re-imagining of Test Track. Just a few feet away from the roar of those cars is a delight that has enhanced the Epcot experience for more than 15 years.

During the annual Epcot Flower and Garden Festival each year, purple martins, the largest of the North American swallows, return to comfy white homes behind Mouse Gear to start new families. As crowds gather to enjoy the festival, the martins go about their daily routine of raising their next generation, paying no attention to the hustle and bustle of nearby guests.

Some guests imagine that those white PVC gourds with an alphabet letter on them are cameras or special lighting fixtures on a white pole, but they are actually safe havens for birds who sometimes have to battle other sparrows and starlings for the treasured space. The letters help identify each gourd for documentation by the Animal Programs team.

To legions of purple martin enthusiasts, these feathered travelers, who spend their winters in warm Brazil, are captivating not only because of their beauty, but also because they are so social. They are actually not purple in color but a blackish-blue that in a certain light can look a deep purple.

Purple martins are dependent on man-made housing to nest, a situation that has existed for hundreds of years when local Native Americans first hollowed out actual gourds (instead of the artificial ones used most often today) and hung them on trees.

The Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians put up poles with hollow gourds around their villages for the martins to nest in. Early settlers continued the practice and also started making "bird houses" shaped like human habitations. With increased urbanization the number of people putting up martin houses declined from the 1950s through the 1980s, but there has been a resurgence of interest in these birds and they are making a comeback from being a threatened species.

As part of the Disney Company's commitment to conservation efforts, there are more than 200 man-made white gourds on property. At Epcot, the temporary residences are located on stage between Mouse Gear and Test Track, while an area over twice that size exists backstage at Disney's Animal Kingdom Park.

There are approximately 60 houses at Epcot and between 160 to 180 houses backstage at Disney's Animal Kingdom. In 2005, Disney's Animal Kingdom set up their first six houses for martins and used speakers to play a recording of a special song that the male purple martins sing to attract other martins. It worked, and two pairs set up house, one pair in each of two martin houses.

The program first began more than fifteen years ago as part of a backyard bird garden exhibit for the Epcot Flower and Garden Festival, but was kept to delight guests and to provide a habitat for these birds whose future at that time was threatened.

I got a chance to talk with James Mejeur, a zoological manager at Disney's Animal Kingdom, who has been in charge of maintaining the Walt Disney World colonies of purple martins since 2005:

Jim Korkis: I've been on the "Behind the Seeds" tour at Epcot's The Land pavilion several times and have always enjoyed it. One of the things they discuss is that Walt Disney World sometimes controls pests by using "good bugs" that eat the eggs of the "bad bugs" like mosquitoes.

James Mejeur: I wish they wouldn't use the term "good bugs" and "bad bugs" because all the bugs do what they have to do for the balance in nature but yes, we do use such things to help the environment.

JK: They didn't say it on the tour but I have been told by some Epcot cast members that Walt Disney World wants purple martins here because they control the mosquito population on property.

JM: It is a popular myth that we encourage the purple martins to return to Epcot because they control the mosquito population. Actually, the purple martins fly higher than mosquitoes. If the purple martins were dependent on eating mosquitoes they would have to eat tens of thousands a day and even then they would probably still be hungry. Of course, that would decimate the mosquito population completely fairly quickly so if the martins needed to eat mosquitoes, they would then starve. Actually, if martins ever fly lower than usual, they much prefer gobbling up junebugs because they have a nice crunch. We have other methods to control the mosquitoes at Walt Disney World but the martins are not part of that process.

JK: Why put up housing for the purple martins?

JM: The birds are completely dependent on humans for homes and have been for centuries. They communicate with each other so they know where the man-made homes will be. The other birds follow them in. We have to check the houses two to three times a week. We watch when the eggs are laid and when they hatch and contact a national data bank. They are vulnerable to other more aggressive birds like starlings who will fight them for the nesting opportunities. Sometimes squirrels will want to kick them out and take over the housing or endanger the eggs. In addition, we have to check for feather mites because they may weaken the chicks or irritate them to the point that they will leave the nest and fall to their death. We sometimes have to change out the entire nest with new material.

JK: I know the purple martins are here by the time of the Flower and Garden Festival but how early do they actually arrive?

JM: The older birds arrive first, sometimes as early as around Christmas, because they are smart enough to realize that the early bird gets the prime homes for nesting. They come in waves. The younger birds who arrive later get what's left. With age comes experience that helps with survival. Generally, by the second week in January, they have all arrived.

JK: I know there are a lot of purple martin enthusiasts in the Florida area.

JM: There is a purple martin community out there and we all keep in touch online and are in a friendly competition to see the first one. By late July, the purple martins are gone again. During the period they are here, we help fledge hundreds of chicks, increasing the endangered population. Guests love purple martins because they are associated with happy memories and are a way to connect with nature. For me personally, they are the soundtrack to the wonderful summers I spent with my grandparents on their farm. There is a website maintained by the Purple Martin Conservation Association, a nonprofit conservation organization.

JK: Thank you for sharing the story of this hidden treasure at Epcot.



  1. By peanutj

    I've never even noticed those houses before. Do you have any pictures you can share?

    I got a kick out of reading that Disney keeps track of the birds. I have a mental picture in my head of Disney putting little RFID magicbands around their legs.

  2. By jencape

    What an interesting article Jim.

    I think you may have solved the mystery of the "gourd boxes" we saw and Epcot and Animal Kingdom. We took a photo of them and tried asking several cast members what they were. Now at least we know the answer! Thanks for the great article.

    Here is a photo of the "gourd boxes" we saw. Are these the ones?

  3. By Jim Korkis

    Yep, those are the gourds for the purple martins. There are some other variations but the majority of the gourds look exactly like the ones in the photo. When I first saw them, I thought they might be some futuristic lighting system or speakers or even survelliance cameras. Apparently, there is a huge business in the selling a variety of purple martin housing. Most of the designs mimic the actual gourds used by Native Americans many, many years ago.

    Thanks for sharing this and I am sure the other MousePlanet readers will enjoy it as well.


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