I know it will happen very soon. I will drive into the fields at Heart & Sole Gardens and I will miss the greeting I usually receive from my short-term residents, the Purple Martins. Migratory birds, these social creatures arrive mid-spring at our farm from their winter residence in South America. From April until July, or sometimes early August, these beautiful winged birds delight us with their aerodynamic stunts, their distinctive chatter and their dramatic antics. Since they only eat flying insects, the Martins are also valuable unpaid organic farm workers, devouring scores of pests from morning until dusk.
Before Richard and I erected the poles that support birdhouse gourds, inviting Martins to spend summers at our farm, we researched the birds’ possible negative impact on our honeybee colonies. After all, we did not want to encourage predators to live in close proximity to the hives where they could eat our hardworking pollinators. After months of reading everything we could find about the issue and discussing it with other local bee keepers and Martin enthusiasts, we found no definitive answers to our questions and since numerous other songbirds lived at the farm, we decided to take a chance with Martin housing. In the Eastern United States, Purple Martins are dependent upon humans who provide housing, but even when clean, appealing gourds or other homes are ready for residents, there are no guarantees Martins will select what is offered. Fortunately, a few days after we hung our first birdhouse gourds, freshly painted and cleaned, Purple Martins claimed them and eagerly began to build nests inside their new homes.
For the next few years, we welcomed “our” birds back to the farm. They seemed to recognize us and chattered excitedly when we pulled off the highway to drive along the farm path, swooping over the truck and showing off their flying stunts. Often, while working at the farm, I hear a cry of alarm from Martins when hawks fly too close to the nesting area or, occasionally, the predators sit on the poles, hoping to gobble a Martin baby. When I hear that strident signal of trouble, I run toward the gourds, shouting loudly at the would-be attacker and waving arms over my head. Long after the hawk flies away, Martins circle my head as I work, pleasantly chattering, as if they are grateful for the help. As if to celebrate ridding themselves of predatory birds, Martins will often “wing bump” each other as they fly.
Although synthetic gourds are available for purchase, we only use natural dried gourds for our Martin housing and the birds seem to prefer these. Last winter, after years of Martin use, I found cracks in some of the gourds while I was cleaning them of old nesting material and dirt, so I began the process of creating new housing. After cleaning dried gourds, I used a pattern to cut a half-moon shaped opening that works for Martins, but discourages English Starlings, an invasive species that will lay eggs in Martin nests, then leave the eggs for Martins to care for, along with their own offspring. Bluebirds also love the Martin housing, but at Heart & Sole, the Martins are able to claim the gourds for their own. This spring, however, was different.
After hanging the new gourds, we waited for our first arrivals. And waited. I checked the Purple Martin Conservancy’s scout report page http://www.purplemartin.org/scoutreport/ and saw that other hosts in our area welcomed birds, but ours were still no-shows. In late March, two scouts arrived, but after a couple of days, they disappeared. Richard and I discussed possible scenarios for our missing birds. In late winter, work was completed for a creek restoration project at Heart & Sole, so perhaps the different terrain was not acceptable. Could it be the scouts did not favor our new housing? Perhaps “our” Martins found a site that was more appealing? Just when we thought we might have to face a season without Martins, a scout arrived, much later than usual, but we were thrilled when we observed, in early May, several Purple Martins claiming gourds.
Almost immediately, we noticed our latest colony exhibited different behaviors from the birds we previously hosted. For one, they were not as social as our earlier families. By late June, they tolerated our work when it took us near their homes, but they were not as chattery or welcoming as earlier birds. Another difference we noted is that these Martins often perched on tomato cages, tree limbs or even freshly tilled soil, unlike other Martins that only used their gourd support poles to rest. A few weeks ago, I watched a Martin take a “dust bath,” a first for me. Birds will sometimes scratch to create loose soil and then flap wings to settle the dust on their feathers. This is common among some species and helps to keep feathers healthy and groomed, however, I had never seen a Martin take a dust bath. Since there had been weeks without rain and more birds tend to dust bathe in arid climates, I suppose this could have been the reason. Still, it was an unusual sight.
It is always a treat to watch fledgling birds fly for the first time. Often, I witness parent birds encourage young Martins to leave the nest. Purple Martins only eat live, flying insects, so the parents will stop feeding their young, hoping to drive the hungry young birds out of the gourds to catch their own food. Adults fly to the gourds, where open mouths and stretched necks reach to them, only to pause briefly and then fly away, leaving the baby birds hungry enough to follow. Several days ago, I saw two young male fledglings attempt to land at the same spot on a birdhouse support pole, only to crash into each other and fall toward the ground before gathering their wits to fly again. When all fledglings join the adult birds and soar overhead, working to perfect those daredevil moves, it is an incredible sight.
As we prepare for the inevitable Martin departure, Richard and I are making plans to visit eastern North Carolina where thousands of Purple Martins gather before they make the long flight back to South America. We joke about how the time these birds sped “down east” must be like attending a huge family reunion, complete with lots of food and conversation. We hope “our” birds will have safe travels and we look forward to next spring when scouts will, hopefully, choose our gourds to raise their young.