Tom Brake is a special kind of landlord. Not only does he design and build living spaces with the needs of his tenants in mind, he spends many warm summer afternoons helping them perform routine housekeeping tasks.

It’s more than a hobby,” he said. “It’s really an obsession.”

Tom is an adjunct instructor of horticulture at VHCC and an expert on purple martins, the aerial acrobats that winter in Brazil but return to campus each spring for nesting season. Because they are largely dependent on human intervention for survival, Tom designed a home that mimics natural nesting sites and made it large enough to accommodate 26 purple martin families.

Purple martins first came to campus a few years ago when then-horticulture instructor Joel Keebler – a bird expert in his own right – purchased a wooden home, consulted with Tom before finally choosing a site between the LRC and NEB, then ordered a recording of the dawn song. The recording – which must be played before dawn in the early spring – successfully attracted a small colony to campus in 2006.

Since then, Tom has invested significant time caring for the birds. They are “friendly and personable,” he said, and seem to enjoy the company of humans. Once a family gets settled and baby birds have hatched, he lends a helping hand by lowering the house, checking for parasites and predatory birds that might cause harm, and even relocating babies to a clean nest when necessary. The birds seem to appreciate his help, he said, so he always takes a few handmade nests with him during an inspection.

Once everything is tidy, he cranks the house back to its original height and lets the birds do their own thing.

To accommodate the growing population, Tom built the new aluminum house during the winter months and donated it to VHCC. It’s a unique design that he invented – with doorways that keep predatory birds away and screened nest trays that allow harmful debris to fall to the ground. His tenants arrived a few weeks ago and began checking in. There’s now room on the VHCC campus for 40 purple martin families.

When not teaching or performing bird duty, Tom operates Nature’s Finest, a local company that specializes in landscape architecture and design. In fact, he designed and built the pergola in the VHCC conifer garden. And although spring and summer are busy times for his business, he manages to sneak back to campus periodically to check on his favorite birds.

His hard work allows others on campus to pause on an afternoon walk to enjoy the graceful flight of the purple martins and their melodic song that seems to indicate they are very happy in their summer home. In that way, Tom’s obsession is an incredible gift to the rest of us.

 

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