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Purple martins pass through. July 23, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading.
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Our friend Ben has been hearing for years that purple martin populations have been declining in the East due to the conversion of their favored habitat, large expanses of open fields and ponds, to tree-laden suburban plots. Silence Dogood and I live out in Pennsylvania farm country, and on our country rambles we see many martin houses on Amish, Mennonite, and Pennsylvania Dutch farms, both the martin “apartment houses” made famous by the one Harrison Ford crashed into in “Witness” and our favorites, the white-painted gourds hung in clusters. But until yesterday, we had never seen a purple martin.

Our friend Ben had gone to the back of our property, Hawk’s Haven, at about 7:30 a.m. to putter in the greenhouse and veggie beds before it got too hot and humid. Our land is bordered in back (and front) by farm fields, and the farmers had followed their wheat crop with hairy vetch, a nitrogen-fixing cover crop, which was now covered in purple blooms. Presumably, those blooms were attracting plenty of insects, because our friend Ben was suddenly in the center of an aerial show.

Past my head the birds swooped, completely oblivious to (or at least unconcerned by) my presence as they pursued their prey. Their path took them over the field, then back onto Hawk’s Haven land and past my head again and again. I had never seen a purple martin, but there was no doubt in my mind that was what I was seeing now. Racing for the house, I grabbed Silence and we rushed back to our property line.

Our mouths hung open almost as wide as the martins’ beaks as they combed the air for bugs (martins catch their prey on the wing by flying open-beaked). We stood there, awestruck, for half an hour as the martins swept past us, often close enough to stir our hair. A martin’s flight is elegant, the wings pumping once to send them skyward, then folding back as they arc back down in the classic swallow flight pattern. (Purple martins are the largest North American swallows.)

Eventually, we shook ourselves and got back to the morning chores: watering the greenhouse, harvesting tomatoes and blueberries, checking the progress of the fruits on the squash, tomatillo, and pepper plants, culling buggy peaches, and enjoying the spectacle of the bumblebees and honeybees jostling to pollinate the many gorgeous squash blossoms. When our friend Ben returned to the site an hour later, the martins were gone.

Luckily for us, we were heading out for a gathering of our beloved Supper Club that very night, and our friend and local birdmeister Rudy was attending. (For more on this, see our earlier post, “The Friday Night Supper Club.” A supper club is great fun and easy to organize!)

Rudy confirmed that we had indeed seen purple martins, a flock of immature martins with their bluish-purple backs and brownish-white bellies. (Adult males are entirely blue-black.) Then he gave the hopeful Ben the bad news: No, I couldn’t put up some white gourds and establish my own martin colony; Hawk’s Haven has too many trees to make it attractive to martins as a nest site. Aaaarrgghhh!!! He also revealed that martins spend their winters in Brazil, a very long trip for a comparatively small bird.

This morning, our friend Ben headed to my favorite birding site, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, to find out more about purple martins. (Check out the site on our blogroll at right.) I discovered that purple martins are 7.5 to almost 8 inches long, with wingspans of 15.4 to 16-plus inches. This seems like a pretty hefty wingspan, but you don’t see ever see the wings stretched straight out, airplane-style, like a hawk in flight. Instead, the wings curve, scimitar-style, as the martins slice the air in what the website endearingly described as their “buoyant” flight pattern.

I also learned that martins drink on the wing, skimming pond surfaces with their open beaks, as well as eating on the wing. Talk about fast food! But the most interesting tidbit our friend Ben discovered was about martin nesting habits. The site said that Native Americans had been setting out gourd houses for purple martins since before the first Europeans arrived here, and that farmers had been putting up martin houses for well over 100 years. As a result, Eastern martin populations were now almost entirely dependent on human-provided nesting structures, unlike Midwestern and Western populations, which still nest in natural cavities (including nest-holes in saguaro cacti).

Our friend Ben loves the idea of carrying on an ancient tradition of setting out gourds for the purple martins, so now I’m even more demoralized that I can’t do it here. But maybe you can!

For those who might be wondering why the Native Americans and early American farmers went to such pains to attract martins to their fields, when early America was literally teeming with other bird species, the answer is simple: natural pest control.

Like bats, martins are insect-eating machines, tirelessly sweeping the fields in search of their prey. Before the advent of chemical pesticides that killed beneficial and destructive insects alike (and the birds and other creatures that depended on them), everyone was an organic gardener. It’s heartening to think that people saw the good sense in partnering with nature hundreds and perhaps thousands of years before today’s organic renaissance.

Go martins go!!! But don’t eat our bees, please.



1. Elephant's Eye - July 23, 2010

Uh uh – for the bees we have carmine bee-eaters. Very beautiful colourful little birds, usually in a small group. And we only seem to see them perhaps once a year. Sorry for the bees tho.

They sound beautiful, Diana! And hopefully once a year isn’t too hard on your bees.

2. Gail - July 23, 2010

What a marvelous experience to see all those birds as nature intended…gail

It was SO fantastic, Gail! Truly once in a lifetime (so far)!

3. Purple Martin House - July 26, 2010

For anyone with a purple martin house setup, seeing those purple martins devour their prey later in the evenings is always a great sight. They are very acrobatic flyers and it is definitely one of the more enjoyable things to see!

So true! Martin lovers, note Purple Martin House’s online catalog, http://www.purplemartinsupply.com.

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