A Purple Martin Project


(This 1112th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 15, 2012.)


Purple Martins at the Iroquois Job Corps Site


The purple martin is our largest swallow. It is enough bigger than our other swallows that it is easily identified by size alone. (It weighs well over twice any of the other six species that occur here.) But the martin's plumage is also distinctive. The adult male is uniformly colored a very dark blue, so dark that it appears black in most light. Females and young are also dark backed but have gray throats and whitish bellies.


Martins are found across the United States, absent only from western mountainous areas. Interestingly, there is a striking behavioral difference between the eastern and western birds. Our purple martins nest almost exclusively in man-made birdhouses; the western birds rarely do so, nesting more often in old woodpecker holes or in saguaro cacti.


In any case our eastern martins are colonial nesters. They are the birds you see flying around, perched on or entering those big multi-apartment bird houses or clusters of hanging gourds that have been set out for them.


Like other swallows, martins feed exclusively on insects they catch in flight. Their grinning-from-ear-to-ear bills turn into gaping traps as they approach a flying beetle or dragonfly. Unfortunately, mosquitoes are usually beneath their dignity. Even so, they are considered beneficial birds, a delight to have around.


Having them around, however, has become a matter of concern. This species has not been doing well. Although they are far from threatened with extinction, their population has declined significantly in the northeast. Between the 1980-85 and 2000-2005 New York State Breeding Bird Atlases, the number of 36 square mile blocks in which they were found decreased by 39%. This followed an even steeper 67% decline on western New York breeding bird surveys between 1967 and 1993. Observers believe that this population crash has been due to nesting competition with starlings and house (aka English) sparrows and to loss of habitat in Brazil where they overwinter.


To address this situation Carl Zenger and Celeste Morien are replicating the approach of those who have done so well bringing back our bluebird population. They have initiated a New York State Purple Martin Project and are attracting volunteers to census martin colonies and whenever possible to band their young.


Most of Zenger's and Morien's activities have centered around the Iroquois-Oak Orchard-Tonawanda refuge complex, but already participating with them are the Chautauqua Institution and two sites at and near the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. Although not yet associated with this project, Jerry Farrell also bands purple martins in Niagara County.


I joined a group of volunteers last week to watch some of the banding being done at the Iroquois Job Corps Center on Tibbits Road in the Town of Shelby. There the project has mounted three 18-nestbox structures that allow them to access the nests by lowering the entire apparatus.


As we approached the first martin apartment complex, over a dozen of the birds were actively flying nearby and visiting their nestboxes. When the complex was lowered, they continued to hover nearby but, unlike kingbirds or tree swallows, they didn't swoop down to attack us.


These three birdhouses were specifically designed for martins. Well designed and constructed, each cost almost $1000. The apartments stand about 20 feet high atop a single pole with a tube at its base to prevent raccoons and squirrels from climbing to the nests. This tube was removed and the apartment was carefully slid down so that the nests could be examined.


Very careful records are kept of the colonies not only for comparison over time but also in order to determine when the young should be banded. The boxes were carefully slid out and examined. Some had a half dozen white eggs (incubation is about two weeks), others young birds that fledge in about four weeks. With no practice whatsoever, they simply emerge into the light and fly.


Birds are banded between 10 to 18 days after hatching. While Zenger attached to each bird a U.S. Fish and Wildlife band and an additional green band to identify this project, other volunteers replaced the nest with new material free of ticks and lice. Over 200 have been banded at this location.


When their apartment building was again raised into position, the martins immediately returned.


For more information about this project visit their website.