COVENTRY TWP.: A swooping bird caught the attention of Tessa Patton as she stood on the shore of the Portage Lakes’ North Reservoir.

“One came close to my head! Did you see it?” the 4-year-old asked her grandfather, Jeff Stout of Akron.

Tessa, of Coventry Township, had been trying to fling bits of scrambled eggs from a plastic spoon to the purple martins darting by, and she seemed a little crestfallen that none appeared to be gobbling up her offerings. But when one shot by just above her, her face brightened.

She had come to the North Reservoir Boat Ramp with her grandfather Saturday afternoon for the fifth annual Buckeye Martinfest, a family-oriented festival put on by the Portage Lakes Purple Martin Association. It was an opportunity for people to learn about the birds, see their young up close and even cradle chicks in their hands.

The association started the festival as a way of educating the public about the importance of purple martins, voracious insect eaters that devour pests such as termites, carpenter ants and Japanese beetles, said Larry Hunter, the association’s founder and past president.

Hunter said the group has spent about $25,000 since its founding on gourd-shaped martin houses to encourage the birds to nest along the Portage Lakes, but it figures its efforts have saved the lakes’ residents 10 times that amount in insecticides, home repairs and medical costs related to insect bites and the illnesses they can cause.

Hunter said the group has placed 35 poles, each holding 12 birdhouses, throughout the Portage Lakes area. Last year the group counted 212 nesting pairs and 744 fledglings in the birdhouses it maintains, he said.

The birds migrate to Brazil each winter, “and then they come back. That’s what makes it terrific. They start their own families,” said state Rep. Marilyn Slaby, R-Copley, who pitched in to help some of the younger participants feed the birds. Slaby was joined at the festival by fellow state Rep. Anthony DeVitis, R-Green, and state Sen. Frank LaRose, R-Copley, all supporters of a bill making its way through the General Assembly that would designate the Portage Lakes area as the Purple Martin Capital of Ohio.

Patsy Hunley of Tallmadge showed up because she wanted to learn more about the martins, which she suspected might be the same birds she’d seen in a field next to her house. She was one of the few adults among a cluster of youngsters launching bits of scrambled egg off spoons in the hope of coaxing the birds to snatch bits of egg in midair.

“I’m having fun even though I have white hair,” she said with a laugh.

Savannah Joseph, 11, was first in line for a chance to hold one of the baby birds that association President Paul Toth lifted from their nests so volunteers could assess their health. Her expression serious, she cradled the tiny creature gently but firmly, aware of the responsibility that had been entrusted to her.

The Willoughby resident had come to the festival with her grandfather, who lives in Akron. “I knew we’d be seeing them,” she said of the birds, “but I didn’t know we’d be holding them.”

The association raises money for its efforts by offering twilight boat rides on Nimisila Reservoir in August to allow people to see thousands of purple martins in swirling flight as they prepare for their fall migration. Information about the rides, which cost $20 and sell out early, is online at http://tinyurl.com/martinrides.

Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or mbrecken@thebeaconjournal.com. You can also become a fan on Facebook at www.facebook.com/MBBreckABJ, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckABJ and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.