Having become very familiar with my backyard birds and those on my bluebird route, I thought it high time to branch out and learn about some other species.
One species I have an interest in is Purple Martins. They’re related to the Tree Swallows that nest in boxes along with Eastern Bluebirds on my monitor route. A friend’s family had Purple Martins when she was a child. And my sister-in-law has been trying to encourage them at her place without success. So, what’s up with this bird that seems to fascinate people and nests in communities on top of tall poles?
A member of my birding club, also a volunteer at a nearby golf course where he takes care of its Eastern Bluebird nest boxes and Purple Martin colony, gave a presentation this past Saturday morning. He called it “Purple Martins 101”. Here’s what I learned … fascinating!
Native Americans observed Purple Martins nesting in woodpecker holds and natural cavities and began hollowing out gourds and hanging them on poles to attract the birds to nest in their villages. The Purple Martins adapted to the human habitat offerings and over the centuries became accustomed to them. European colonists learned how to encourage the martins and also invited them with housing. The human offering of housing was so successful that today, Eastern Purple Martins nest exclusively in man-made housing! Western Purple Martins, however, still largely nest the old-fashioned way … in old woodpecker holes and other natural nesting cavities.
I thought that communities of Purple Martins would not have to compete with other birds for nest cavities, but as it turns out many other birds do attempt to use the martin colony nest compartments. Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, English (House) Sparrows, Starlings, House Wrens are the most common competing species.
After giving an hour-long presentation about the history and habits of Purple Martins, our host lowered a colony, opened several compartments and continued to educate us.
He removed nestlings from a nest infested with insects and replaced it with one he fashioned from Styrofoam. He allowed participants to hold the tiny nestlings (no, birds never abandon their nestlings because humans have handled them).
I learned that Purple Martins enjoy open areas near water. They rid the area of insects (though it’s a myth that they eat mosquitoes) and act as scarecrows for farmers. They appreciate the proximity of humans whose presence helps keep predators away.
While I don’t foresee hosting a Purple Martin colony myself, this interesting bird and its relationship to humans is worth closer study.