A Public and Private Partnership to Conserve Purple Martins
I always enjoy hearing from readers of this column. A few weeks back Mariano Librojo from Norwich contacted me and sent pictures of three purple martin “apartments” he erected in his backyard. The structures are set up on tall poles and each has a cluster of 24 individual nesting gourds designed specifically for purple martins.
I visited Mariano Aug. 4 to learn more about this unique bird and discovered he is one of several purple martin “landlords” throughout the eastern United States who maintains nesting apartments for a colony of purple martins. Here in Connecticut he is working in partnership with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP) and the Connecticut Audubon Society to conserve purple martins.
Purple martins are the largest member of the swallow family and range from 7.5 to 8.5 inches in length. They are also called “dark swallows” for the dark glossy, blueish-black plumage of the adult male bird. Females and younger martins are grayer and pale on their undersides. Their larger size and color help distinguish purple martins from tree swallows. Purple martins have forked tails and their flight patterns are like that of other swallows, with short glides alternating with rapid wing flapping. One of their unique features is their song with a mixture of “chortles and gurgles” in descending notes followed by a prolonged “twittering” call.
Purple martins prefer large open and grassy areas near a water source, such as streams, rivers, ponds and lakes. They feed entirely on insects and use the large open areas for catching insects on the wing. They eat a variety of insects, including bees, ants, wasps, flies, beetles, moths, butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies and more. Despite this assortment of insect prey, they are not a major consumer of mosquitoes.
Upon arriving at his house, Mariano took me to his spacious backyard. His three purple martin apartments looked more like a tall white modern sculpture than bird houses. This was until I noticed many birds flying throughout his backyard and roosting on the structures. He pointed out the males with their iridescent dark blue plumage, the females with their grayish breast and juvenile fledglings from this year.
The style of apartment he uses has 24 plastic gourds per structure. They are held in place at the top of a tall pole by a series of ropes and pulleys. Unleashing the rope, he lowered the entire apartment to the ground for inspection. Each gourd has an entrance hole for the bird and a larger hole with a threaded cover for easy inspection and removal of nesting materials prior to the next breeding year. During the nesting season the purple martins are very tolerant of human interaction, and he checks them regularly for number of eggs, fledglings, etc.
My first question to Mariano was why he took an interest in purple martins. He said he has always loved birds and was inspired by friends and colleagues Jim and Beth Sullivan. He wanted to help give these beautiful and enjoyable birds a chance to survive.
He told me that purple martins are long-distance migrators that spend winters in South America and Brazil. They return to nesting grounds in April and begin their long journey back to South America in September. Before the nesting season he will clean out the gourds and put white pine needles in each one to help attract the returning martins. On this base of needles, the female will add more nesting material as well as fresh green leaves on which she will lay 4-6 smooth white eggs. She will incubate the eggs for slightly more than two weeks and the hatchlings will remain in the nest for 24 to 28 days. Both adults will feed them a steady diet of insects.
Mariano reported all the fledglings had already left the nest and along with the adults were still circling his backyard as well as his adjoining neighbors’ yards. Just watching the aeronautic prowess and listening to the calls of these beautiful birds was enchanting and made my morning all the more enjoyable. He reported 55 fledglings this year, down from 80 that fledged in 2019. Peering inside the gourds he showed me the nesting materials as well as left-over wings from many dragonflies and other flying insects that had been served as supper for the purple martin nestlings.
Unfortunately, over the years the number of purple martins has declined over much of their range in the eastern United States, including New England and The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. They suffer from competition for nesting sites with aggressive non-native European starlings and house sparrows. The apartment complexes Mariano and others maintain are designed to help deter starlings and regular visits by the landlord helps to control house sparrows. Some apartments also have devices to keep predators such as snakes, raccoons, squirrels, owls, hawks and crows from raiding the nests.
Thanks in part to efforts of landlords like Mariano, the purple martin is now down-listed from a threatened species to a species of special concern under the Connecticut Endangered Species Act. Conservation efforts have really made a difference.
Mariano surprised me with a gift of the “Purple Martin Book: The Complete Guide to Attracting and Housing Purple Martins,” by Donald and Lillian Stokes. I have several of the Stokes field guides and was delighted to include this in my collection. I also looked up information about purple martins on the CT DEEP website as well as the Connecticut Audubon Society website. You can find the Stokes guide online and below are links to information from CT DEEP and Connecticut Audubon.
Here are some other interesting facts about these amazing birds:
- Purple martins return in April and as long as conditions are favorable, will return each year to the same nesting location.
- The purple martin colony does not travel together in a flock but leaves for nesting grounds or winter residences as a random grouping of birds independent of each other.
- In Connecticut they only nest in man-made houses, making the work of Mariano and others so important to their conservation.
- A good resource for getting started as a purple martin landlord is the Purple Martin Conservation Association (PMCA). This is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping with landlord education and research. Their email is: email@example.com
- Purple martin and human interactions are not new. Native Americans hung out hollow gourds around their villages for the nesting birds as a way to control insects.
I enjoyed meeting Mariano and hope to return in April 2021 when a new colony is formed and the sky above his backyard is again full of these beautiful birds. I learned so much about his important hobby as a purple martin landlord who does not collect rent. Instead, he gathers the priceless joy of interaction with these unique birds and the lifelong satisfaction of helping to conserve this species for the enjoyment of future generations.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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