Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Martins Are Coming!

All the way from South America! Yes, our largest common North American swallow, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Purple Martins should be arriving in North Texas neighborhoods any day now, for the summer breeding season. You can follow their migration progress on the Purple Martin Conservation Association site’s 2015 Scout Arrival Page.

For the fourth year, the welcome mat is out at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge for Purple Martins, at the big Martin house just outside the Visitor Center at the Refuge, purchased by the Friends of Hagerman and installed in 2012 by Refuge staff and volunteers.  The staff reported  7 confirmed nests in the Martin house in 2014.

Some “Cool Facts” about Purple Martins, from Cornell Lab of Ornithology include:

     Native Americans hung up empty gourds for the Purple Martin before Europeans arrived in North America. Purple Martins in eastern North America now nest almost exclusively in birdhouses, but those in the West use mostly natural cavities.
· European Starlings and House Sparrows often push Purple Martins out of local areas by taking over all of the nest sites, including houses that people put up specifically for the martins.
· Purple Martins roost together by the thousands in late summer, as soon as the chicks leave the nest. They form such dense gatherings that you can easily see them on weather radar. It’s particularly noticeable in the early morning as the birds leave their roosts for the day, and looks like an expanding donut on the radar map.
· Despite the term "scout" used for the first returning Purple Martins, the first arriving individuals are not checking out the area to make sure it is safe for the rest of the group. They are the older martins returning to areas where they nested before. Martins returning north to breed for their first time come back several weeks later. The earlier return of older individuals is a common occurrence in species of migratory birds.
· The Purple Martin not only gets all its food in flight, it gets all its water that way too. It skims the surface of a pond and scoops up the water with its lower bill.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Macauley Library offers a variety of recorded songs and calls of birds; hear a sample song of the Purple Martin: In addition, the library offers videos; here is one selected for the demonstration of the Purple Martins’ flight, described as a mixture of flapping and gliding:

Another resource for those who would like to host a Martin colony is The Purple Martin Society of North America, which, with a wealth of information on Martins and Martin houses, is “dedicated to Purple Martin landlords.

Finally, are Purple Martins “skeeter eaters”? Here is the definitive answer, from the Purple Martin Conservation Association:

"Martins, like all swallows, are aerial insectivores. They eat only flying insects, which they catch in flight. Their diet is diverse, including dragonflies, damselflies, flies, midges, mayflies, stinkbugs, leafhoppers, Japanese beetles, June bugs, butterflies, moths, grasshoppers, cicadas, bees, wasps, flying ants, and ballooning spiders. Martins are not, however, prodigious consumers of mosquitoes as is so often claimed by companies that manufacture martin housing. An intensive 7-year diet study conducted at PMCA headquarters in Edinboro, PA, failed to find a single mosquito among the 500 diet samples collected from parent martins bringing beakfuls of insects to their young. The samples were collected from martins during all hours of the day, all season long, and in numerous habitats, including mosquito-infested ones. Purple Martins and freshwater mosquitoes rarely ever cross paths. Martins are daytime feeders, and feed high in the sky; mosquitoes, on the other hand, stay low in damp places during daylight hours, or only come out at night. Since Purple Martins feed only on flying insects, they are extremely vulnerable to starvation during extended periods of cool and/or rainy weather.”

This post was originally published Feb. 20, 2014 and has been updated.

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