Bird Lore: Purple Martin

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The Purple Martin is the largest of the Western Hemisphere swallows that breed in North America. As a cavity nester, this swallow now needs artificial nests to survive and reproduce. It can be seen occasionally in summer over the waterfront and the marsh because a small population nests in wooden boxes attached to the Point Wells pilings, about a mile south of Marina Beach. The Purple Martin was a staple on the Edmonds waterfront for about five years starting in 2004, to the delight of summer visitors.

With the endorsement of Edmonds Parks & Recreation, we asked Kevin Li, a biologist and Purple Martin advocate, to mount natural gourds on the Olympic Beach pilings. Rebar was put in the pilings, above the high tide level, and natural gourds were attached in March 2004. That summer a small colony of swallows nested in the gourds. The martins returned each year until the gourds deteriorated and had to be removed. We replaced them with white plastic gourds that should have had a much longer useful life. However, there was no evidence that Purple Martins had used the plastic gourds and within two years all gourds fell off the rebar.

It is possible that the plastic gourd attachments, which were the same as those used for the earlier natural gourds, failed because of the domino effect. Cormorants had perched in large numbers on the Union Oil dock. The dock was removed in late 2008. That displaced a large population of birds. Some of the remaining cormorants began to perch on the rebar we had installed on the Olympic Beach pilings. Cormorants have large feet. After just so many take-offs and landings, the attachments failed.

The local Audubon chapter next decided to install painted plastic gourds in the marsh. Purple Martins never showed any interest in those gourds. They were taken down last fall.

bird2Stan Kostka, an independent Purple Martin researcher and Snohomish County resident, had been installing wooden nest boxes throughout the northern inland marine waters. Once installed, they required no maintenance and could be used for years. The Point Wells boxes, installed by Kevin Li about 20 years ago, are still in use. Stan agreed to build nest boxes for Edmonds if I would assist.

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The six new nest boxes were attached to the Olympic Beach pilings on Sunday morning’s high tide. Thanks to Chris and Marnie White, Edmonds residents and Edmonds Yacht Club members, for signing on to the project with their Boston Whaler. All six boxes were mounted before dawn.

The entrance holes of the nest boxes are designed to deter entry by House Sparrows and European Starlings. The interior floors and exterior perches are scored so that adult martins can pull themselves in and out. Scoring also prevents hatchlings from developing splayed feet, which can happen on a smooth surface. Each box has been seeded with straw as nest material. The boxes have been numbered one through six on both sides. Numbering allows observers to identify for others which boxes are in use. Wire has been stapled to the top of each box to discourage perching by larger birds, such as the cormorants.

Male birds are the first to arrive and they establish nesting territories. The female lays 4 – 5 eggs and incubates them for 15 – 18 days. Both parents feed the nestlings. The young birds remain in the nest for nearly a month before they fledge. Flying insects make up the bulk of the Purple Martin diet. These include wasps and winged ants, many true bugs, both house and crane flies, beetles, moths and butterflies. There is no guarantee, of course, that a Purple Martin colony will use the new nest boxes this summer. We should all know by some time in June. It may take another year for enough adult birds to form a new colony at Olympic Beach.

— By Carol Riddell
Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

6 Replies to “Bird Lore: Purple Martin”

  1. Wow! That is great news! Sure hoping the birds will be attracted to the new digs….looking forward to updates 🙂

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  2. Thanks for your hard work. I do hope we get more swallows. We had a box when we lived in Meadowdale and it worked until—bees decided they liked the “house” also and that was the end of the swallows! We tried.

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  3. We have a Martin house by our pond and I just saw a male purple martin flying around it. I decided to clean it out and as I was cleaning the house, the male sat on a cable above the pond watching me. I hurried and finished and left so I wouldn’t scare it off. I just hope he brings more here to build this spring! I will keep you posted. Cedar Springs, MI April 14, 2018

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