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The Marvelous Martin

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Published on: Feb. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

When I was a kid, a colony of purple martins nested near my grandparents house. Martins were new to me, and I remember being attracted to their metallic blue color and chortling conversations.

But what appealed to me most was their flight. They would sail and swoop effortlessly over the entire north end of the town. They were having fun, I guessed. When seen high against a billowing cumulus cloud, it seemed no bird was more appropriate for paradise than the purple martin.

In the 40 intervening years, I've learned a bird's life is probably not as simple and carefree as it might have seemed on those summer days long ago. Birds are faced with a struggle to survive. They are on a time/energy budget that eliminates opportunities for pleasure.

The flights overhead that I once thought looked like frolic are simply a strategy to sweep insects from the air. If the martins or their young are not hungry, they will be resting. Flying is functional.

And those conversations I heard were in reality more like arguments than friendly greetings. I've even learned that martins aren't the wonderful mosquito-eaters we once thought.

Having a greater understanding of the purple martin's biology has not diminished my admiration for them. Martins remain remarkable to me in many respects. First, they are unusual among birds because they are dependent on people, nesting almost exclusively in homes that we provide for them. Even Native Americans hung up nesting gourds. Natural nest sites, such as hollow trees, have been virtually unheard of during the last 100 years.

Secondly, though they may not be voracious mosquito consumers, the martin's appetite for larger insects is truly astounding. A martin colony may catch and eat several hundred beetles, horseflies, grasshoppers, bees and wasps every day.

The martin's migration also is amazing. In August, martins assemble into large flocks in preparation for fall migration. A nighttime roost in Springfield once contained over 30,000 birds.

Flocks such as this join others as the martins migrate southward. In a few weeks they are on their winter range in southern Brazil. They are thought of as pests in the state of Sao Paulo, where a few million roost in city parks from November through January.

They certainly are not considered pests at this end of their migration route. Most of us who enjoy birds would give almost anything to have a martin colony residing on our property. The proper way to do this is to put up a martin house.

Unfortunately, in recent years, these houses are occupied only about half of the time. Most unsuccessful martin houses are placed too close to trees or allowed to be taken over by house sparrows or starlings. Many times, however, there is no apparent reason why the martins do not occupy them. Perhaps there are simply too few martins to go around.

A couple of years ago I revisited my hometown. I scanned the skies as I drove north on Main Street. Sure enough, there were martins, darting and circling above me.

I pulled over and peered between houses into the backyard where the martin house once stood. To my amazement, not only was a martin house still there, but there were a total of five houses, each brimming with residents. Although the property had changed hands several times in the past 40 years, the subsequent owners had kept up the martin tradition.

The martins winged against the blue sky and hovered about the houses twittering noisily. It was a beautiful June day and, though I should have known better, I was convinced that they were enjoying it to its fullest.

To help people understand, enjoy and manage for the purple martin, we have published Missouri's Purple Martins. This booklet tells how to build and place martin houses, when to have them up (the first scouts arrive between March 10 - 20) and how to control competitors, predators and parasites. For a free copy of the booklet, write Purple Martins, Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City 65102-0180.

The booklet explains that if you do not get martins right away, be patient. Martins are slow to move into new nesting areas. Yet they come back year after year to the same martin houses. In fact, neighbors of martin landlords may have the best chance of attracting purple martins.

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