NY State Purple Martin Project

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The NYS Purple Martin Project by Gerry Rising. For the Buffalo News, 7/15/12.

from the The Observer and the Watkins Glen Review & Express

Purple Martins can be fascinating to watch

WATKINS GLEN—A symphony of chirping and twittering marks David Crans’ early mornings near his Salt Point Road home.

By Douglas H. Domedion (5/17/12)

purple martinYou have seen the big apartment style bird houses on tall poles in some folks back yards. They are for purple martins which are our largest swallow, being about 7-8 inches in length with a wing span of about 16 inches. The males look all black or purple depending how the light hits them and the females have a dark back but are light colored around the belly and chest. Immature birds look like the female but more drab with a yearling male having a dirty white belly. They have short legs and do not land to drink or bath but skim the surface of the water in a pond or lake.

Photo caption: MALE PURPLE MARTIN: The color varies from black to purplish-blue, depending on the lighting.

These birds catch flying insects, their only food source, in mid-air as they fly. They do not consume high numbers of mosquitoes as often claimed. Mosquitoes stay in low damp areas and only come out at night making them unavailable to the martins.

Another myth about them is that the first birds returning in the spring are “scouts” that are checking out nesting sites and then return for the rest of the flocks. In truth these “scouts” are just the first birds migrating through and the other birds come when they are ready.

Early permanent birds set about getting familiar with the area again and may disappear for a few days as they do this. They are known for just “lounging around” and enjoying life for a few weeks before nest building and mating takes place. Martins nest in cavities and prefer to nest in groups and this is why apartment type bird houses are put up for them. Once the females start arriving the males start defending as many martin house compartments as they can, attempting to attract more than one female.

About four to six weeks after the older birds return the young from the previous year will return and begin looking for a site to start their nesting cycle. Many times these are the birds who start new nesting colonies if good ones are available. The nesting period may last two months because of the different age classes and arrival times.

The female does most of the nest building with material such as grasses, pine needles, sticks, mud and green leaves. Older birds may lay 2 to 7 soft white eggs while younger birds may only lay 3 or 4. Incubation is about 16 to 18 days with the female doing most of the incubation. The brooding period is about 28 to 30 days after which the young will leave the cavity; a relatively long period for a bird that size.

About three days before the young do fledge they will be about the same size or even a little bigger than an adult and can be too heavy to make that first flight successfully. The parents must realize this and quit feeding them which causes them to lose some weight and thus enabling them to do good on those first flights.

The young will practice their flying and landings but they still will beg food from the parents for about a week before they actually start following the adults to learn how to catch those flying insects. After a few weeks of this activity most of the martins will gather into staging areas readying themselves for the long migration to South America where they spend the winter. Many folks who have put up martin houses have had poor results. Much of this is caused by poor location, failure to clean the nesting cavities each year and use some method to discourage or remove starlings or house sparrows.

Unfortunately the purple martin population has been declining since the early 1980”s in NYS, around 39%. Check in next week to see the reasons why and what you can do to reverse this trend. We did it with the Bluebirds, we can do it with the purple martins!

By Douglas H. Domedion (5/24/12)

Last week I mentioned how the purple martin population has declined in NYS, by 39% since the early 1980's. This is also the true in Vermont, Massachusetts, Ontario, Quebec, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire; some of which have higher rates of decline.

So what has been going on that has caused this decline? As with all of Mother Nature's subjects there are generally a number of reasons for a problem. First, loss of habitat or changes in it can cause stress and issues. But there is another thing that caused the shift from natural cavities to man-made cavities. The Indians would hollow out gourds and hang them around their homes. The martins adapted to these and over a long period of time they abandoned the natural cavities and switched over to these man-made cavities probably because they found them more secure from predators because of the close proximity to humans. Now if man-made cavities are not provided they are at a loss as where to nest.

The second reason is the take over of nesting cavities by non-native species such species as the starling and house sparrow. These two species have not only caused problems with martins but also bluebirds, wood ducks and other native cavity nesters.

Another reason, that goes along with the second, is the lack of people to put up and MAINTAIN these nesting structures. These houses can be expensive and are not easily monitored as they need to be put on high poles. A system that allows the easy raising and lowering of the martin house is needed and can be expensive but that is what is needed to be done.

There are some new methods available to manage martin houses but they don't seem to be getting out to people. This is where the NYS Purple Martin Project comes in (more on that later). Another reason we are experiencing lower martin populations could be something is going on in the winter grounds in South America that we don't know about yet.

So what can we do to help reverse this downward trend? The same as we did for the Bluebirds!

  • purple martin houseWe can start by installing more of the appropriate martin housing, including predator proofing, and a system to easily raise and lower the house to evict house sparrows and starlings. House sparrows will actually kill martins and bluebirds and destroy their eggs or young. Houses should be place at least 10 feet high and higher if possible. They should be 30 to 120 feet from any human housing and 50 feet from any trees so a clear glide path for approaching the house is available. Being placed near a large body of water, such as a pond, is also another plus. These efforts are worth it because martin will return to the same nesting site each year if it is still suitable and that means good maintenance. There are now new methods of trapping these non-natives and a new entrance hole design that prevents starlings from entering the cavities.
  • Planting native trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses will attract more insects than non-natives for a better flying insect supply.
  • We can avoid applying pesticides that will kill or poison flying insects that the martins may catch and eat.
  • If you have or can create a pond with good vegetation around it this is a big plus for martins too. It will create habitat for dragonflies and many other flying insects that martins love. It also gives them a place to drink and bath as they do both on the fly.
  • A pile of small gravel or sand in an open area for grit can also help the birds out. Dried, crushed chicken egg shells on an elevated platform will help egg-laying females. Of course this tray could also be used to place meal worms out for bluebirds when we get those late cold spells and there are few insects for them to find.

If you are interested in this NYS Purple Martin Project you can contact:

We turned the bluebird around when he got into trouble and I'm sure we can do the same with the purple martin if folks get serious about it and put a little effort into the project.

Download a Purple Martin Brochure Here
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