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Do you have purple martins in your back yard?

by niagarau
Sat, Feb 4th 2012 07:00 am
Bird bander Jerry Farrell raising the gourd house condominium back up the tall pole after his inspection.
Bird bander Jerry Farrell raising the gourd house condominium back up the tall pole after his inspection.

by Mark Daul

Outdoors in Niagara

Now, that's a good question. There is a chance you do and don't even know it.

Purple martins, in the swallow family, are similar to a barn or cliff swallow; purple martins are a little larger, nearly 8 inches in size. Barn swallows, as the name implies, will be seen frequenting barns (naturally), your garage, and especially they love horse stables around here. The cliff swallow in our neighborhood is mostly seen along the edges of the cliffs along Lake Ontario, either right under the overhang or they love to burrow a deep hole in a sand vein so frequently found along these shores. Kingfishers hang around these places too, waiting to raid the nests.

The swallows and martins diet on winged insects, catching them in flight, but the purple martin refrains from eating mosquitoes. (They must taste yucky?) Being the biggest of the swallows, the purple martin has a slightly forked tail, and the barn swallow has a much longer forked one, and your cliff swallow has no forked tail. All three are beautifully colored and the adult martin is all glossy black with a steel blue sheen.

In our area we have a nationally known, federally licensed, bird bander, Jerry Farrell, who lives in Lewiston. Banding birds for most of his life, Farrell is known all over the United States and Canada for his expertise and education of others in this important field. He is a member of the North American Bird Banding Council (NABBC) and a member of our local 3F Club on Swann Road, where he manages a purple martin banding project. All volunteer work.

At a recent meeting of the Niagara County Pioneers Club, Farrell gave a talk on his purple martin banding project, and it was quite interesting to all. He said his project started at the 3F club 35 years ago in the back pastures of the club and it was never successful. He wondered why, but just felt, well, there are no birds around here, until one spring day he noticed martins sitting on the wires up near the club house and he thought to himself, "I should put a martin house up here."

He did, and the first year it was a metal box, and it attracted some birds, eight pair, not a lot, but some. The second year he put plastic gourd houses up and that was a good year when he attracted 38 birds of which all the offspring were banded. This project just finished its fourth year and Farrell is elated at its success. Every year the nests are full of eggs, then baby birds are all banded, all recorded, and released back into the wild.

Maybe you are thinking, why band birds? The North American Bird Banding Council was founded in 1923 for the purpose of "individual identification of birds, which makes possible studies of dispersal and migration, behavior and social structure, life-span and survival rate, reproductive success and population growth." Purple martins are a migratory bird and Farrell says his banded birds have all shown up in Brazil, where they socialize throughout the winter months, and come back here to mate and do more serious socializing by raising families, before going back again for their winter vacation.

Housing can be of wood, plastic, aluminum, natural gourds or plastic gourds. Plastic gourds you can buy, and preferably with a rack system like Farrell uses at the 3F club. Why plastic gourds? Maintenance is important. The gourds are erected on tall poles, rigged so they can be raised and lowered for servicing; something like you would your American flag. When lowered to ground level, Farrell and his army of volunteers can check the eggs at hatching time, check the newborn, and keep an eye on them until they are old enough for banding before they "fly the coop."

Farrell said last year they moved a set of gourds out to the front of the clubhouse and when they started checking them, he found some birds hauled shotgun wads of different colors to the nests. The nests were in kind of close to the skeet range, where they picked them up and carried them to their nests. Farrell said upon checking with the NABBC and others, no one ever heard of that. Normally, all is found in these nests are leaves and pine needles, and Farrell said when they inspected, the eggs were so buried under the wads, he had to pull them out just to inspect the eggs. The tall poles are good deterrents for climbing predators like squirrels, raccoons, etc. There are even flying predators, like hawks, crows, blue jays, and others.

Starting a martin colony can be fun, and they are a beautiful, graceful bird to watch. You can attract them to your backyard if it is large enough, because they like lots of landing room. They don't care for trees and bushes too close to their homes, because when they land, they come in with a swoop, plus, the trees are good cover for flying predators. If you want to start a purple martin colony, go to the library for information or research doing this on the Internet. There are all kinds of interesting information out there.

One year I was lucky enough to observe the banding of these birds and get some pictures, all the while learning and asking questions. The picture you see here is of Jerry Farrell raising the gourd house condominium back up the tall pole after his inspection. Notice the birds sitting on the wires waiting for him to finish so they can get back into their little apartment and check on their families.

Farrell has done talks and demonstrations for years at outdoor shows, for clubs, for schools and regularly appears at the Wildlife Festival at the New York Power Authority grounds in Lewiston every fall. If you have a group that would be interested in a presentation, give Farrell a jingle at his email: [email protected].

Fishing has been in the doldrums recently, and everyone has been waiting for the ice to form on Lake Erie so the Lower River will settle down from the turbulence caused by Lake Erie winds, but it looks like it will be postponed this year. When it freezes, the river clears, the fish feel better, and the winter diehards can get out and catch them. For up-to-date fishing info, check out www.OutdoorsNiagara.com for the latest.

For comments or suggestions, contact me at [email protected].

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