An Interview with George Finney, Owner and Builder of one of the Largest Martin Houses in North America

Reprinted from: Purple Martin Update 1(1): 24-28
James R. Hill, III

 

In 1985, I spent one of the most enjoyable days of my life visiting with George Finney at his home in Winnfield, Louisiana. On the 26th of December, 1987, I talked with George again, this time by telephone. Below is a partial transcript of the interesting conversation we had.

Mr. Finney, when I spent the day with you back in 1985 you had one whole room of your home filled to the ceiling with home-made, wooden martin houses. Do you still have that many in that room?
No sir, that room ain't a fourth full now. Last year I had to go have some implants put in my eye and I lost all that time in the summer that I should have been working on my bird houses. I had about 90 days that they wouldn't let me do anything.

How many martin houses have you built in your lifetime?
Mr. Hill, I don't have no idea.

Do you think it's been hundreds?
Yes sir, it's been hundreds of bird houses.

Do you think maybe more than 500?
Yes sir, I believe more than 500.

Why do you like to build martin houses Mr. Finney?
Well Mr. Hill, it gives me something to do. If I don't have something to do, I just get stiff an sore-up til I can't hardly get around.

So building martin houses is good for your health?
Yes siree, it sure is. It gives me something to do and I got to keep a doing something. I'd be dead by now if it weren't for building these martin houses. It's a life saver as far as health is concerned.

Also when I visited you in 1985, you told me that you danced 5-6 times a week as hard as you could, real fast. You said it just sent electricity through your body. Do you still dance like that?
I still do that same thing. That keeps them legs limber.

What kind of music do you play?
Well, I just got some of this fast, fast music. Now, I don't do that for no hour or two. I just maybe put me on a record and dance it out, from the front door to the back of the kitchen. Yes, ha! ha! ha! If I can't get outside cause of the weather, I'll just put me on a good record and get up and dance.

How old did you say you were, Mr. Finney?
I'll be 82 on my next birthday.

Have you ever been married?
Yes, I was married in 1928 and my wife passed away on March the 3rd in 1972.

What did she think of that big martin house you built?
She passed away in March and I put that house up in November of that year.

So, she never got to see it?
She never got to see it, bless her heart. We talked about that for a long time. She was sick for 29 years. And we talked about building the big one and I said, "Well, we'll do that." But her health kept getting worse and worse and worse. So, after she passed away, I said, "Well, I'm gonna go on with it and build it – just take my time and build it." Ya know, I was tore up. Still am. I started out about July on it. She passed away in March.

Was the big martin house the first martin house you ever built?
Oh no! Back there when I was a kid, 70 years ago, when I was about 11 or 12 years old, I was making martin houses. You could go to town then and go to the store and they'd give you an apple box. And I'd go back home and take my pocket knife and whittle out them holes. Of course, you don't have to do that no more – ya saw em out. I'd whittle out them holes and make me a little 2 or 3-holed martin box, and put it up. I'd always get a martin or two. But don't seem like we got near as many as we got now. Of course we got more building places now than we had then. But I just believe we have a lot more martins now than I think we had back there 60-70 years ago.

Why did you build such a big martin house?
Well, I just decided I wanted a big one. I just decided we'd just build as big a one as we could build. Six hundred holes, 700 holes, or whatever I could make and figure out a way to get it up.

What are the dimensions of the house?
Well, the dimensions of it is 4 foot wide, 8 feet long, and 8 foot 6 inches high. It's also 8 foot 6 inches to the bottom of the box from the ground. The birds' holes are 11 inches deep.

Do you mean from the entrance hole to the back wall?
Yes, from the hole to the back of it is 11 inches. The compartments is six inches from center to center of each partition and 4 3/4 inches high. Four & 3/4 inches sounds little, but that's a heck of a big place in there.

What are the sizes of the entrance holes?
Two & 1/4 inches.

How high up is each hole from the floor of the compartments?
Oh, about an inch and an eighth.

How many compartments does the house have?
It has 620 compartments, but 676 holes.

Yes, I noticed that the corner rooms have 2 entrance holes, one on each face. Why did you design it like that?
Well, it looked better that way than it would have. You see, if not, every foot there would have had a 6 inch blank with just a plane board. As the way it is, my holes are all rote up on both faces. They all go straight across and I would have had them staggered. And I didn't want that.

Do the martins ever use the compartments with two entrance holes?
Yes sir, I got em to use those compartments with two holes. I didn't figure that they would do it, but I've noticed in watching them out there in the summertime, that they'll go in em with something to feed a little bird in it. But there are more in the regular apartments. But I've had a few that built in them corner holes.

What do your neighbors and town folk think of this huge house? Do they think you are a little bit eccentric for building such a big one?
Well, I get a lot of compliments on it. They's proud of it too, just like I am.

Do you do other things in life in a big way?
No sir, not like that. I've worked all my life. But I've enjoyed every minute of it. I've enjoyed the bird house too, playing with them birds and meeting all the wonderful people who been coming around seeing it and visiting with me, and talking. I like to talk, Mr. Hill. I believe you knowd that from when you was down here before. Ha! Ha!

How much wood did it require to build that house, do you remember?
Yes sir, I can get pretty close to it. It took about 24 sheets of plyboard. And there's also about 1000-1100 feet of 1 x 6's in that box. Now that's linear feet, not board feet. Down at my foundation I've got some 2 x 10's and I believe there's one or two 2 x 12's in there. That 's to brace it to keep it from sinking or swagging, and all that, ya know, to make it hold up. But there's a lot of material in that box!

Do you have any idea how much it weighs?
I don't know. I'm just guessing at this right here. I'd say it weighs a 1000 pounds. I might miss it by 50, 75, 100 pounds one way or the other. I don't know, I didn't weigh it.

How much did it cost to build it in 1972?
$530.00.

Why did you decide to put the house on four legs?
Well, you had to for it to stay up there. If you'd a put it on three, a storm would a probably blowed it off. It would have been impossible to put it on two. And you sure couldn't a put it on one. That house has gone through 4 or 5 big storms that we've had that blowed down trees everywhere around here. And my box is still there, where if I'd a probably had it on one or two posts, it would of went over, ya know – nothing to brace it. After each of them storms, I looked out there just knowing that the bird house would be gone, but it wasn't, it was still standing. I was lucky enough. Them posts is 3 & 1/2 foot in the ground – concreted.

How did you ever get that house up on those four leg posts?
Well, I had a friend out there that sold logging equipment. So when I got it made, I called him and he brought his log-loading equipment out here and we put the chains and 2 x 12's up and down the sides of it to keep it from squishing in the porches, ya know, when we lifted it up. And we had no hard time getting it out from under the shed where I built it. The platform was already built to set it on. And alls we had to do was just set it up there and bolt her down. That wasn't no trouble at all. That was the easiest part of it.

How many days did it take you to build that house?
It took me about 37 days. About 200 and some odd hours.

How long does it take to paint it?
Well, it would take you three good hours to paint that box and a whole gallon of paint. When I put it up, I put 2 gallon on it. I put on a gallon of primer and went over it with my other paint, two full gallons.

How often do you paint it?
Well, I used to paint it every two years, but its been four years since its been painted now. I can't get up there no more Mr. Hill. I have to take all kinds of medicine for dizzyness. I wouldn't get up on that ladder now, the top's got to be about 18 feet from the ground. It's just too dangerous for me now. But when I used to, you'd have to take some wet rags and wipe it good first and dry it. Painting up that high on a ladder, you have to paint under the porches, on top of the porches, everywhere. You can't go real fast with it, you've got a lot of territory to cover.

Sounds like you probably ended up with a lot of paint on your self.
I didn't get much paint on myself, I had me a big ole apron.

Do you agree that a martin house should be painted white instead of some other color?
I've made a few boxes here of different colors for people back years ago. They got birds in them. But I always go with the white with red chimneys on em. They look more attractive to the bird, but, I could be wrong on it.

What thickness of plywood did you use on the various parts of the house?
Now, my bottom and my top are 3/4" plyboard. My partitions where my porches is, that's half inch. But where's my holes is, now that's 3/8". I used 3/8", 1/2", and 3/4" plyboard.

How did you get each different level to stay together?
After you get your first one down, you ain't got a bit a trouble from there up, only keeping it plumb. When you get your first row of holes on your bottom piece, where it's setting on your foundation, you just lay the next one right down on top of that and nail it into your partitions.

Did you use nails or did you use screws?
Oh, I used nails.

How about glue?
No glue at all. No, I used nothing but galvanized nails. And way back then, when I built that bird house, I could buy my galvanized nails for 18 cents a pound. Now they're 75 cents a pound. Everything was a whole lot cheaper back in 1972 than it is now. I used the galvanized nail so that it wouldn't rust, ya know.

How many nails do you figure are in there?
I figure 30-40 pounds. Ha! Ha! There's lots of nails in that box.

I'm curious, is the inside of the house hollow? Do your 4' x 8' sheets of plywood making up each floor go all the way through the house, or did you cut them out in the centers?
No sir, they're hollowed out. That's why I stopped it at about 11 inches deep. There's about a 17", 18", or 19" hollow inside the box.

How about ventilation. Is there ventilation inside the box?
No sir, there's nothing, only a hole,. There's no ventilation.

Do you have any humorous stories to tell about the construction of this house?
Some of my friends was teasing me, and they'd say, "George, you never will get that bird house up." And I'd say, "Well, we'll just wait and see. If I don't we'll just leave it here in the shed and let them build on it in here." Ha! Ha! Ha!. But they were teasing me, ya know. That's what they were doing. A lot of them would come by and watch me. Some of my neighbors over here, I'd work on it a day or two, and they'd drop by to see how I was getting along on it. Mr. Hill, that was something to start from the ground, getting it level, and completing it to the top. That was something to walk up there and stand by that bird house and see how much taller it was than you.

You couldn't move it once you started building it, could you?
No sir, indeed! You've got to level your foundation first. Get that good and level. That's the main part for that big a bird house. Then you've got to get your little timbers under that to hold it off the ground and start out right from there. And then you use a straight edge from there on up. I had a perfect straight edge and everything touched it. Every sheet of that plyboard from the bottom to the top would touch that straight edge. It had too, if it didn't I'd be way out of line when I got at the top.

When you were building this on the ground, you must have had to stand on a ladder to build the upper floors. Did you?
I did. I started out gonna make it with 702 compartments instead of just 620. I cut out some extra pieces, but I cut out enough for 702 compartments. And I figured with the height of my shed, that I could put 702 and still put the roof on it and still get it out from under the shed. Well, when I got up there to where I seen I was gonna get in trouble, I had to raise my shed 6 inches.

How did you do that?
I had posts in the ground holding the shed up. I just took my jack and jacked them posts up. Then I had to raise it 6 more inches after that! And that was as far as I could go. I had to cap the house off at 620 rooms, because I would have had to go 6 inches more higher at which point I would have had to tore some of the bird box down.
You mean you had to raise the shed up to get the birdhouse out the door?
No sir, I had to raise it up there to put the roof on it under there.

Then, how did you get it out of the shed?
Well, that wasn't a bit of trouble in the world. The easiest part of it was getting it out from under the shed and putting it up. I put two boards down and I had some round pipe. I just put it on that pipe and we just pushed it right on out there where my friend could bring the loader in here. I already had my boards and everything cut to go on the side of it and he had plenty of chain.

That must have been pretty exciting for you?
Yes sir. I had a lot of people out here watching that put up. They said it would be hard, but it wasn't no trouble at all. He lifted it right up and set it right down on there. There ain't but six bolts that hold that on that frame. Six 3/8" bolts.

When did you actually put it up in the air?
I'd say probably around the 15th of November, 1972.

So, when the martins came in 1973, did any of them nest in the big house that first year?
Yes sir, and I've had lots of them ever since. Of course, I never will get it full, but this past year I figure I had about 150 adult birds.

Is that the most you've ever had in there?
No sir, no sir it isn't. I believe two years ago that I had at least 300. You've got to give 25 one way or the other, ya know. There ain't no way to tell exactly.

Why do you say you never will completely fill that house up with martins?
Well, it would hold 1240 !!!! Ha! Ha! Ha! I never would get to see the sun if I had that many!!! I'd be in trouble, surely. Ha! Ha! Ha!

What kind of shape is your martin house in now that its at least 15 years old?
Mr. Hill, it's getting in pretty bad shape.

Is the wood getting rotten?
Yes.

Have you ever had to replace any of the wood?
No, it would be hard to replace. Plywood is a hard box to fix. It splits in all kinds of ways, ya know. And you can't get a saw up there next to it to saw the porches off. And the bottom of it down there at the foundation part, has got a pretty good sized rotten place on it. There's about 4-5 places on it that are getting damaged pretty bad. One of the corners on the porch, right on the corner, it's rotted to where it's drooping down about, I guess, and inch and a half out of level. But, I believe even if it was sitting on the ground they would still build in it.

You really think so?
I sure do. About 4-5 years ago, I was out in the country working on some locks and this fellow there had an old martin box and it was right low to the ground, and he had all kinds of martins in it. I took my rule and went out there and measured it, and it was 6 foot from the ground to the bottom of that box. So I came home, and I had some 2-hole martin boxes, and I had an antenna pole here that was about 8 foot long and I drove me a wedge in the pipe. Then I put my box on it and stuck it in the ground down to six feet and it wasn't 2 days til my martins were building in it. So they built in it for 2 years and then I wondered one year why they didn't go back. A wasp nest had got in it. That's the worst thing that will ruin a bird house. I had the same thing happen in a bluebird box last year and the birds just won't use em when they's got wasps in em. It's hard to catch a wasp. They can get in it before you hardly know it.

Have you ever been bothered by European Starlings or English House Sparrows in that big house?
No sir, they don't use that big house at all. Starlings and sparrows know they're not welcome here. I haven't been bothered since I got rid of the chickens. Now uptown, there are some.

What time of year do your first martins come back?
I'll get them anywhere from the 5th of February to the 17th. Now that's when I get em. I hear of a few here before that time, around the 1st. That isn't too long off now. And I just can't wait till that time comes. My neighbors do too. They'll say, "Hey, Mr. Finney, look's like we're back in business again." And I'll say, "Yes," and they'll say, "Well, I'm sure glad to see em." And I'll say, "I am too."

How does it make you feel when you see those first martins come home each year?
Makes me feel great! There's just something about those martins coming in here that makes me, my family, and all my neighbors just glad to see them. It makes you think spring is here. But sometimes it's not, cause I've had a few martins on the south side of that box when the whole rest of the box would be wrapped up in ice-sickles. They'd just be grouped up there on the porch. I don't know whether they made it or whether they didn't. We'd just had a rain and it freezed. It's pretty hard for them to find any insects during that kind of weather.

Ever find any dead ones from the cold?
No sir. Haven't found any dead ones from the cold. But, I used to have a 48-apartment house, and one June, when there were plenty of martins here, they were wrapped up all over that house. I took my camera out there and it was just loaded with martins. I'd say 90% full of em. But then my daughter and them had to rush me to the hospital. I went up there and stayed about 8 days. When I came back, my neighbor down here in the next house, he came up here to see how I was doing, and he said, "Mr. Finney, there's something or other a wrong with your bird house out there. Them birds will try to light on it, but they'll just flutter their wings in the air about 3-4 feet from it and they won't light on it at all." "Well," I said, "there's a wasp's nest probably got in it." There was one dead martin on the ground under the box. Well, I picked that bird up to see if had been shot, ya know, to see if I could find what the trouble was. Couldn't find a thing. Well, I got my ladder on that box and I began to run some brush in them holes to see if it was wasps, cause I knew if it was, why they'd put me off of that box too. I found four dead birds in the box, but no wasps. Well, I cleaned the box out good, but never another martin went to it that year. I left it up there the next year and there never was a martin even would light on it. And this is one I'd a made out of hard cedar. It would have lasted, ain't no telling how many years. And the second year ain't none come back. The third year, still none came back to that box. What happened I don't know.

What you have just described, is the typical behavior of martins after a black rat snake has climbed up the pole and eaten some of the adults, young, or eggs.
No sir, I don't feel like it was a snake. But I know a cat will scare away martins. They'll dive down at it. Ain't you seen em dive down at dogs and cats? Yes, many times. A course, a dog don't pay no attention to em, but a cat will actually catch em. I had a friend who had a martin box that had littleuns in it. The adult martins kept diving down at this cat on the ground and this cat caught em, he told me. Caught them martins. So after that, he didn't have no more birds.

Have your martins ever been bothered by predators, such as hawks, owls or raccoons?
Yes sir. Ya know, this happened this year. It could have happened a lot of times and I didn't know it. I walked out on my porch about 11:30 one morning the first part of the spring when the martins was here. There was about a dozen on this side facing the house. I was a looking at it, and all of a sudden here come a Blue-darter Hawk [colloquial name for a Sharp-shinned Hawk]. I was looking at the martins there, and he picked that martin up off of the corner. She was sitting right on the corner. And he picked her off and away he went with her.

Was that a baby martin the hawk got?
No sir, that was a grown bird. Now, I also had a big hawk here about 4-5 years ago. I was out there on the porch and just one of these big hawks dove down, but he was slow. They don't fly like a Blue Darter. A Blue Darter comes in like a jet. When that big hawk came from the corner of my porch headed for that box, all of them went off. Every bird in that box shot off right toward the ground. He didn't catch anything. They had some way of communicating right quick, cause off they went. Everything. I don't know, maybe 40 or 50 of them in that box just come out in every direction. He didn't get no birds. I never did see him no more.

And then here come an owl that bothered me here for the longest time. And he's still around here. My son-in-law tells me he sees him around here. I haven't seen him. But I kept watching for him. When I'd come in from out there late of evening looking for him. Well, about the time I'd get in, my daughter and her husband might be sitting on the porch down at their house, looking up this way and that owl (of course they're doing their catching late, just at dark), they'd seen him dive right up on the corner of that big box and hang there. Of course, by the time I got out there, he was gone. Course he'd just light on there and run his foot in that hole and drag the birds out and eat em, I guess, though I never actually saw him do it.

Do you clean out the martin nests each year?
No sir, I don't. I haven't ever cleaned it out. There's not very much in that box. They don't have much. Now, if it were a sparrow, he'd have as much straw in one hole as a martin will have in three or four.

Do your martins come back each year and reuse the old nests?
Yes sir, they do. In the spring of the year, they'll kick them eggs out on the ground. Ya see, I have to start mowing here when everybody else's grass is dead. Mine just works me to death here in the summertime. But, they'll be up there and you'll find them eggs kicked out on the ground, all around that box.

Are they the unhatched eggs from the previous year?
Yep, the old eggs from last year.

Has this big house brought you a lot of attention from the news media?
Yes sir, it has.

Have you ever been on television with it?
Yes sir, I was on TV with it one time.

Do you like all the attention and the people that stop by to look at this house?
Oh yes. That does me more good when they go to coming in and want to talk and look at the bird house. They've read about it or seen it pictured somewhere.

Do you think that you and your martin house will end up in the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest bird house in the world?
Well, I don't know. I've been told it was in there by several people, but I don't have one of the books. As a matter of fact, about 2 weeks ago someone told me that they had seen it in there themselves. I'm sure that they did or they wouldn't have told me.

Did you ever dream that this house would bring you so much attention?
No sir, sure didn't. But a lot of people love birds, and in the summer time when the vacation is on and the birds are around, I'll have a lot of people visit me here in the yard. I'll be in the house and I'll see a half a dozen cars out there on the highway, snapping pictures. A lot of them come in and a lot of them just stop and take pictures.

How many people do you suppose stop each year?
Oh, I'd say 200 or better, and we'll sit out there and talk for an hour or two. Maybe they drove a hundred miles to come down.

200 people come up and talk to you?
Yes, sir. Might not be quite 200, but they'll be 200 in all what's be out on the highway taking pictures, ya know. It ain't but a 150 feet from the birdhouse to the road out there.

If you had it to do all over again, would you build another big one?
Yes sir, I would.

What have all these years of sharing your front yard with martins taught you about their habits? Are they good at catching insects?
They're the bug-catchingest things I've ever seen! The only kind of insect that I've actually found them with though, and they use a lot of them, that's these little mosquito-hawks [dragonflies]. A lot of times the martins will bring them mosquito-hawks in to the little ones in the box. Of course, they all got their heads stuck out there and they all grab it. Then the old bird will take off and the young they'll drop it. I've seen a time when there'd be, oh, maybe 100 mosquito-hawks around that box, ya know, where they fell out onto the ground. The parents won't pick them up after the young have dropped them, either.

Do martins make good neighbors?
Yes sir. I love to hear em sing. About 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning that sounds real good out there in that box. Yes, Lordy! That sounds good.

Have you ever seen your martins chase other birds?
I'll tell ya, I've seen them chase a Crow or two that would be a coming over. I've seen them take in after them, darting around and trying to scare him, but I've never seen them attack no other bird.

How much time do you spend watching your martins each day?
I imagine I'll be out there on my porch 2 or 3 hours a day.

Are martins your main source of entertainment in the summer?
Yes siree, because I've got them here to watch and enjoy. Then there's my friends and people coming down to see the house and look it over, that never have seen it. Lord, that makes me feel great.

What do you do after they're gone.
This is a lonesome place without those birds, just like if your family left you and moved out of the house.

How do you feel after they're gone?
Ha! Ha! Ha! Not like I do when there here. I'll tell ya, my blood pressure gets a lot lower. I know I've got lots of company when there here.

You mean your blood pressure gets lower when the martins are here?
Ha! Ha! Ha! I don't know, I'm just going on.

Do you feel you could write a book on martins?
Ha! Ha! Ha! I don't know. It might not be a very thick book, then again, it could be a thick one. Ha Ha Ha! Oh Lordy. I'm just thankful that the good Lord has let me go through with this and meet all the wonderful people. Lord have mercy!

So, you don't mind all the people stopping by?
No indeed. No indeed. We'll make coffee, we'll drink it, and we'll sit on the porch and talk. And if they want to talk all day on birds, I will too. You'll learn something from each and every one of them.

 

Well Mr. Finney, we've all learned a great deal from you. Thank you for sharing some of your martin experiences with us.


Copyright 1988 by Purple Martin Conservation Association. All Rights Reserved.

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