Friday, June 17, 2005

My Purple Martin Story

In April, Jorgen and I were at one of my favorite stores, Tractor Supply Co. It's where farmers go to get their "stuff." I'm not a farmer, but being in TSC brings back the old memories of going to similar stores with my Grandpa's, both of whom were farmers. I have a riding lawn mower for grooming my two acres of lawn, but thats about it. So whenever I need something for my "tractor," we head to TSC.

There's all kinds of cool stuff at TSC: barbwire, fence posts, tractor parts, trailers, sharp things, and so on. On this trip, I told Jorgen he could pick something out as a reward for coming out with me. Usually he selects a chocolate candy bar, but this day he chose a Purple Martin house. He really wanted it, so I thought about it. $45 is a lot more than fifty-cent candy bar, but I thought it might be fun, and I had heard Purple Martins eat mosquitos.

When I got the bird house home, I realized that I'd need a 15 foot pole on which to mount it. The pole would need to telescope so that I could lower it and raise it up. I ordered one for about $70, delivered.

Out at, I learned tips for how to place the PM-house. I learned that just putting up the house didn't guarantee that a Purple Martin family would settle there. The housing needs to be "managed" to keep out the riff-raff, non-native birds like sparrows and starlings.

I put up the house in early May, which is recommended in my area. Immediately, sparrows began nesting. I lowered the house and removed their nests. The next day, they had built new nests. This went on for weeks, pitting my human persistence against mother nature's. Finally, one day I saw a pair of young Martins exploring the house. After an hour of being harrassed by sparrows, they went away. Meanwhile, I keep pulling out sparrow nests, about four or five times per week. I tried to shoot the sparrows with a bb gun, but they were too smart for me.

Finally, its June. The sparrows have finally given up and have nested elsewhere. Two weeks go by with no interest in the housing. I'm even losing interest as the prospects for nesting Purple Martins this year grow more dim each day. I go back out to, looking for tips that might salvage our project. They recommend playing a Purple Martin dawn-song recording, which they have online. I started playing the recording on Tuesday morning. By Wednesday evening, two pairs of young Martins are excitedly exploring the housing. By Thursday (today), both pairs are building nests. The kids were out last night, watching the Martins fly around and catch insects. Martins are not afraid of people, and seem to actually enjoy having people around.

The more I learn about Purple Martins, the interesting they become. They are completely dependent upon humans for their housing. When they leave us this Summer, they will migrate to South America over the winter, and then will migrate thousands of miles to to return to my backyard in Minnesota. I think we're going to enjoy sharing our yard with these birds.

When I started the Purple Martin project for my kids (and for me, too), I didn't realize just how much patience and involvement it would require to get a colony established. I was also a lesson in how tough it can be for native birds to compete with non-native species, like sparrows and starlings, who nest earlier than Martins and are more aggressive.

Hopefully with two young breeding pair taking up residence, we will be able to enjoy these beautiful birds for years to come.

It's too bad, though, that they really don't eat mosquitos.

UPDATE: 6-27-2005
House sparrows attacked the Purple Martin nest. This afternoon I found four eggs smashed on the ground, and a sparrow perched outside the entrance to the nest. I haven't seen the Martins since last night. My sparrow trap just arrived in mail, albeit too late to save this nesting season. At least trapping sparrows will make me feel better.

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