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From the Island: Purple Martin Insights


Male purple martin feeding at guord


As we wing towards spring, one of our earliest migrating birds to Wisconsin, the purple martin, is looking forward to a housing start by you -- the landlord.

Purple martins are the only species of migrants that are solely dependent upon man for its summer residence and success of its impending invasion coming in early- to mid-April. This is driven by the innate behavior of its returning to a trustworthy site, determined by you, and its success in bringing off a successful brood.

These early, purple birds, who are four to eight years old, are the elders of the colonies created and harbored by faithful landlords. They seek the prime cavities in size, 360 cubic inches or greater; openness, over 40 feet from the nearest trees; heights above 12 feet to avoid alien competitors such as English sparrows and European starlings; near human habitation; near wetlands; and, reliance on humans for protection from predators.

Both sexes are surviving 5,000 mile treks -- one way -- from their wintering areas in Brazil and South America.

Those of you who have been privileged, begin the process by opening up compartments and raising the housing vertically on poles. The wait is over when those purple melodious beacons hover over that sacred spot where the housing exists.

That magical moment is what many wannabes desire in their placement of over a million new purple martin houses each year.

In Wisconsin, martins have been on the decline over the past 40-plus years. Their past, present and future are dependent on how successful you are in being a landlord and your carefulness in protecting these neotropical migrants in a northern climate. There are no guarantees except for your persistence to maintain, monitor and manage your colony.


By the end of April to early May, another invasion of martins comes. This time from the much younger birds in the third and fourth year of their lives. These are the main elements of a colony.

Last, but not least, is the final stage of the invasion of second year old birds during mid-May until the end of June. These youthful martins, on their first spring, are being coerced by the adults to become a part of their colony or being coaxed by you the wannabe to a new site.

You need to be vigilant, patient, and resourceful by pulling out all stops to attract these newcomers, for success will dictate their return in the future years.

Key items for all are to never take things for granted. Approximately half of all adult birds die each year with the majority of the deaths occurring due to migration; predation; starvation; collisions from cars and windows; wind, radio, television or communication towers; weather; and other accidents. Late snowstorms, cool wet weather, cloudy cool days, and three successive days of temperatures less than 50 degrees, all can lead to starvation or death.

Fuel -- in the form of live insects, surrogate dead insects and cooked eggs -- is basically needed to assure their survival. These can be tossed in the air by hand, sling shot, blow gun or any method to appear they are alive. This training is important for your martins to be able to cope with adverse conditions in Wisconsin, not only in the spring, but also during May, June, July and early August. Insect species to be purchased from pet shops are mealworms or crickets. These can be kept alive or frozen for later use.



Male and female purple martin at guord


Washington Island is a wonderful location for starting colonies or to promote the one you may already have as a landlord. The wetlands and the lake are great assets to attract martins. With the Island, the surrounding water keeps temperatures cooler and may impact insect emergence and impact your martins.

Whether on the Island or anywhere in Wisconsin you need to be a responsible landlord. If you are away from your colony, you need to assign an assistant to be able to open up your housing when martins arrive or keep watchful eye over them. Without that careful watch you may lose your colony or chances to establish one.

Remember -- martins are a species that are solely dependent upon you for housing and its maintenance. To be successful, or to be a first time landlord, patience is required. But, the rewards are everlasting when the gurgling commences.

Here's to your success in this upcoming spring.


Photos by Dick Nikolai

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