https://clarkeva.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/adut-male-all-dark-blue.jpg 4032 3024 Jennifer https://clarkeva.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Clarke-Nameplate3-1024x320.jpg Jennifer2018-03-15 15:20:392018-03-15 15:20:39As the Crow Flies
After 20 Years, A Purple Martin Colony!
On becoming a landlord to the largest North American swallow
Article and photos by Doug Pifer
For over 20 years my wife and I have wanted purple martins to nest where we lived. We bought books about attracting martins. I set up a wooden three-story purple martin house with the proper measurements and studied the best places to attract the birds. I made white painted gourd houses, hung them from a telescoping pole the proper height above the ground, and installed a baffle to deter climbing raccoons and other predators. I measured the site’s distance from large trees and from our house. I even carved and painted realistic martin decoys which I put up each year.
I bought a CD recording of the dawn song of purple martins and played it from April till July from 5:00 until 8:00 in the morning. We watched and waited as house wrens, tree swallows, and bluebirds successfully nested in our martin house. A colony of 8 bluebirds even roosted in our wooden martin house all winter. But no martins.
Sometimes three or four martins would show up. They would call out loudly, circle lazily around the house or gourd rack, or hover in front of it. They sat in the upper branches in a dead tree nearby, checking things out. But they neither stayed nor even landed on the house! Each year we held our breath as the martins would come, circle around and then leave. Something didn’t
In 2016 we bought a historic red brick farmhouse a mile or so from the Potomac River, with a barn, woods, a spring-fed stream, and five acres of pasture. After we moved in, I bought a new aluminum four-tiered martin house and put it up the following March. I set up a couple of decoys.
Finally, one May morning three purple martins appeared. They came every day but seemed to shy away from the decoys. After I swallowed my pride and took my decoys down, four purple martins came back, hung around for an hour or so and then left. They repeated this daily routine until the end of July, but never nested or stayed overnight. Bruce Johnson, then owner of Wild Birds Unlimited, Inc. in Winchester, assured me they would return to nest next year.
Bruce was right! I put up the martin house in the same spot, and around the first of May four purple martins came. With much excitement and loud chirping, they circled around and entered all the nest chambers. In early June, three out of eight chambers contained active nests. By summer’s end all three nests had produced baby martins —not bad for a first-year colony. The first brood fledged at the end of June and the last one left near the end of August.
Maintaining a martin colony requires a firm, long-time commitment from the landlord. Many folks are much more actively involved than I was last summer. They check the nests regularly during the breeding season, examining nestlings for parasite infestations, and, when necessary, replacing their nests and dusting the babies with insecticide. I only lowered the house on the telescoping pole and opened the chamber to check the nests once. I hated disturbing the birds, especially because they all seemed to be just fine without
Here are things I learned last summer about purple martins:
Purple martins aren’t in a hurry to do anything.
Martins require lots of clear, open space around housing.
Activity around the nest is generally in early to mid-morning.
Martins spend much of the day away from their nests, even when feeding young.
If you have house sparrows around, martins won’t nest. Buy and use a sparrow trap.
Get the half-moon shaped entrances for your houses to discourage starlings.
Not all martins choose the same material for their nests.
You don’t have to monitor martins as closely as some people do.
Martins capture and feed their young many large flying insects like dragonflies and cicadas.
Young martins may not return to the house to roost after they fledge.
First-year males look much like the gray breasted females, but can breed as successfully as older “purple” males.
Martin housing should have a nesting chamber larger than 6 inches by 6 inches.
Gourds used for martin housing should be at least 12 inches in diameter
Trust martins, and don’t get excited if they don’t do what you think they should do. If you do everything right but don’t get martins right away,
When I took down the martin house to clean and put it away for the winter, I examined the three well-used nests the martins made. Each nest was a shallow cup of plant material lined with fresh green leaves plucked from trees. Yet each was uniquely constructed according to the preference of the builders. One nest was composed exclusively of small dried rootlet rosettes of short grasses plucked from the ground. Another was made of 4 1/2-inch long hay stems. The third nest consisted of short, dead twigs, and contained some dried mud and about a dozen fingernail-sized freshwater clam shells, evidently gathered from the banks of nearby Rocky Marsh Run.
The Purple Martin Conservation Association, www.purplemartin.org, offers helpful information for martin landlords, a blog where you can connect with fellow enthusiasts to share your concerns, and sales and discounts on martin housing and supplies.
I can’t wait for them to come back this spring!