Purple Martin arrivals tracked; Supplemental feeding tips offered
In the birding world, few species generate more excitement than does the “Purple Martin,” a swallow that is arriving now in Texas, with reports of “scouts” logged almost daily online.
Purple martins, the largest of the swallows in North America, are totally dependent on man-made housing and faithfully return to the same locations each year, so it’s understandable that human “landlords” anxiously await the return of “their” birds from wintering grounds in South America.
Some of the earliest arrivals to the eastern U.S. occur in south Texas and dates/locations are watched by martin enthusiasts nationally on an online database – at www.purplemartin.org — maintained by the Purple Martin Conservation Association (PMCA), a nonprofit conservation organization.
The earliest arriving martin recorded in Texas this season occurred Jan. 11 in Cypress outside Houston. Among other early arrivals: Jan. 12 in Pleasanton and Jan. 22 in Seguin.
Purple martins feed on the wing – taking insects from the air – and early arrivals sometimes face the prospect of starvation when cold snaps clear the air of insects. However, hobbyists have recently learned to supplemental feed purple martins during cold spells, and even in the lingering drought conditions that can reduce the number of flying insects.
The PMCA notes that the drought in 2008 left many Texas nestlings thin and hungry and probably accounted for lowered nesting success as documented in weekly “nest checks” at some colonies.
A PDF information sheet about supplemental feeding — the techniques are new to many hobbyists – has been added to the PMCA’s website. Although once believed improbable, it’s been shown that purple martins – when no other food is available — will learn to accept crickets, mealworms and even bits of scrambled eggs flipped high into the air and sometimes placed on high platform feeders.
New arrivals face the greatest risk of cold weather, but migration into Texas continues well into spring. The first wave consists of so-called “adult” martins – those two or more years old, with adult males sporting full dark-purple color. Females are a bit drab, with a gray breast. One-year-old martins – called “sub adults” — arrive 10 to 12 weeks later than the older birds – well into April.
Purple martins prefer to nest in colonies in gourds hung from large racks and in multi-compartment birdhouses. The birds nest throughout central and eastern Texas with the greatest populations east and a gradual absence in West Texas.
The PMCA recently analyzed long-term data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) and found that – thanks to devoted men and women who erect and maintain housing – purple martin populations overall are holding steady in North America – with exceptions in some states — and appear to be increasing in Texas.
However, despite relative abundance in Texas, many people try for years to attract purple martins without success, or their colonies disappear. Hobbyists may be unaware that problems such as competition from invasive non-native birds — European starlings and House Sparrows — or predation caused abandonment.
While generations of Americans have hosted purple martins – the custom adopted from Native Americans who hung out nesting gourds – specific techniques to help a colony thrive emerged in the past decade, based on research conducted by the PMCA and landlords in the field.
Among innovations are deeper compartments to protect nestlings from rain and aerial predators such as owls, specially-shaped entrance holes designed to admit martins while restricting starlings – and unique pole guards to thwart ground predators: rat snakes and raccoons.
Because purple martins are birds of the open sky — catching insects on the fly — the PMCA’s number one tip: place housing in the most open space available, but where the colony can be enjoyed and monitored.
More information about purple martins can be obtained from the Purple Martin Conservation Association – which is focused on aiding martins and landlords — including a products catalog and information booklet, with advice on attracting and managing a colony, and data sheets to participate in “Project MartinWatch” a national effort in which participants monitor nests and mail information to the PMCA at season’s end.
To obtain the booklet, contact the PMCA at 814-833-7656 or online at purplemartin.org.