I am always in for a treat when I take a walk at MDC’s Central Office in Jefferson City. This morning was a little chilly, so I decided that I would take a short loop around the ponds before heading to my office for the day. As I rounded the last pond, I noticed some birds sitting outside a birdhouse in the distance and I became a little hesitant. I have been dive-bombed by birds before, and it was not a pleasant experience. The birdhouse was set right next to the trail, so there was no avoiding it. I approached the birds slowly, trying not to show interest in them, but they did not buy it.
Sure enough, as I came near the house the birds dove at me and circled above my head until I passed. As they swooped over me, I could not help but notice their beautiful, iridescent, dark blue feathers that seemed to shine in the sun. That one glimpse was all I needed for my curiosity to be piqued, so I headed inside to identify this interesting bird. After much deliberation with my boss and a few field guides I found what I was looking for, the purple martin.
Purple Martins are the largest member of the swallow family. Males are purplish-blue iridescent in color all over their bodies, while the females and juveniles have a light gray underbelly. They can be found throughout Missouri beginning in early March all the way to the end of August when they fly back to Brazil to overwinter. Usually hatching only one brood a year, purple martins will form colonies of several nesting pairs. When they are preparing to migrate, several thousand will gather before taking flight.
These birds are known for their aerial acrobatics and their innate ability to catch flying insects while in flight themselves. Though they do not eat many mosquitoes, they do eat beetles, horseflies, grasshoppers, dragonflies and wasps.
These common summer residents have been slowly declining over the years due to threats from other birds and their inability to adapt to persistently cold, rainy weather. Their main competition is from the European starling and the house sparrow, both of which are highly aggressive birds that will kill young and adult martins to take over the nest box. Nest boxes and gourds have been the key to the purple martins’ survival. Native Americans used to carve out the inside of gourds and hang them from trees as a natural home for the martins. Over the centuries they have become accustomed to these homes and now rely almost entirely on nest boxes and gourds that humans put up for them.
The purple martin is a beautiful bird and a great addition to any back yard. You can find plans and instructions for making your own gourd house at http://go.usa.gov/mdj. Help the purple martins by erecting and maintaining a nest box or gourd house in your back yard. To avoid being dive-bombed, make sure to give them plenty of room. Place the house away from trees and heavily trafficked areas.