A welcome home for Purple Martins

Largest of swallows has its friends as it faces loss of habitat, decline in insects, competition

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By JOHN HOWELL

Lois Graydon is a landlord, but she doesn’t charge any rent.

She is hopeful others will do as she does for if they don’t, she fears the Purple Martin will go the way of the dodo and the carrier pigeon.

There’s no count on the number of Purple Martins, however, according to estimates their ranks have been cut by half due a number of factors including loss of habitat, insecticides, the introduction of non-native house sparrows and starlings that compete for nesting locations and a decline in insects -- a major source of food says Joe Siegrist, President of the Purple Martin Conservation Association.

Graydon, who lives on Warwick Cove and has a Purple Martin house at the end of her dock, remembers the return of the Purple Martins as a child in mid-April. They were a sign that warmer weather was on the way.

On a visit to her home last Wednesday evening, a cool and windy day, the bird house, a metal post with gourd-like balls hanging from it at various angles, looked abandoned. Graydon had put out the welcome matt. The lodges, each for a pair of breeding birds, are lined with pine needles to form a comfortable bed. Having spotted a few Purple Martins earlier this year, scouts for the rest of the birds migrating from Amazonia in Brazil, she wasn’t surprised when three of the birds zoomed onto the scene like jet fighters. Purple Martins are the largest of the swallow family. The birds landed briefly, checking out accommodations before resuming their erratic flight, all of it at high speed.

“They’re like old friends that come back to visit us,” Graydon said enthusiastically.

Siegrist, reached at association offices in Erie, PA, said the highest rate of mortality is within the first year. He estimates those that make it the first year live to be three or four years although the association recorded one bird of 10 years as determined from his banded leg. From Amazonia, the birds fly north to breed and raise their chicks in North America and parts of Canada, a trip that can be upwards of 4,000 miles. In mid-August or so, the Purple Martins head back to the tropics, flying during the day and eating insects without landing.

“They see the Earth’s magnetic field,” said Siegrist. He explains studies of the birds show they are capable of detecting the magnetic field giving them an uncanny ability to navigate.

“It’s a jungle bird that happens to come up here to have babies,” he said.

Whether Purple Martins will find Rhode Island’s newest penthouses remains to be seen. With the assistance of the Department of Public Works, housing for a colony was setup at the Warwick Cove overlook Tuesday morning. It wasn’t the easiest of houses to erect with the wind making it all the more challenging to follow instructions. Graydon bought the house. She is hopeful Warwick Garden Club members that put so much into creating and maintaining the overlook will similarly take an interest in the birds and their preservation. She urges people to be patient as sometimes it can be years before Purple Martins set up house. It was a four year wait before the Martins took up the Graydon’s invitation.

Graydon has discovered Purple Martins are social birds and quickly adjust to the presence of humans allowing them to make weekly home inspections to count eggs and even do some house cleaning if mites are detected. In such cases, Graydon provides a fresh coating of pine needles. She never uses deterrents or insecticides.

Siegrist called Graydon one of a cadre of citizen scientists whose collection of data is vital to understanding the bird and identifying trends. He said the internet has enabled the association to establish a network providing real time information that previously took weeks to share.

Graydon confesses to being a Purple Martins addict.

“Watching this (the spats between birds over selecting an apartment, their flight and building a family – the Purple Martin soap opera) is my television,” she said. She takes delight in watching the birds poke their heads into nearby houses “like the nosey neighbor saying, ‘you had five and I have six.’”

What motivates Graydon is that without help from humans, the birds could eventually die out. She said there are seven colonies for Purple Martin in Rhode Island -- not that all of them are occupied.

Siegrist said the association celebrating its 35th anniversary this year mails a quarterly magazine and has 5,000 members in this country and Canada. It is supported through memberships of $28 a year, donations and grants. He believes a good part of the decline in Purple Martins is a reduction in insects.

“When was the last time you had to clean off the bugs from your windshield?” he asks. He attributes that to human activity as well as climate change. Nonetheless, he advocates for more Purple Martin houses.

“Think of them more as airplanes than helicopters,” he says recommending that a house be positioned in an open “flyway.” In addition, an open area gives Purple Martins a better chance of spotting hawks. While many assume being swallows, Purple Martins like being on a pond or near open water, Siegrist said that’s not the case. The association website provides information on the bird and the houses.

The Graydons, who have a place in Florida, have also provided accommodations for birds unwilling to make the long flight to Rhode Island to visit them. Graydon said being the Gold Coast said some Purple Martin houses can be palatial, not that the birds are fuzzy.

Graydon confesses that her goal is to “make Warwick the Purple Martin capitol of Rhode Island.”

For that to happen Graydon is looking to recruit fellow landlords and the birds will need to learn that Warwick is the flight capitol of the state.

To follow along with the Purple Martins’ migration and learn more about how you can help ensure the future of Purple Martins, visit www.purplemartin.org. In addition, people interested in learning more about how to attract and care for Purple Martins can receive a free booklet by contacting the Purple Martin Conservation Association by emailing info@purplemartin.org or calling 814-833-7656.

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