Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Story of the Purple Martin House

Purple Martin housing at Cove Island Wildlife Sanctuary, Stamford, CT  -  John Field / Naturefied

      I can recall when I first started birding a little more than one year ago....

     I was walking the trail at Cove Island Wildlife Sanctuary in Stamford, CT.  I peered out and saw a strange looking gadget standing alone in the center of a treeless, flat area.  It was not yet within range for me to determine what it was.  As I inched closer to it, I began to squint my eyes while perusing my memory cache....I was convinced that it was a portable light for folks that decide to stay out in the sanctuary past bedtime!  You know...owlers?

     As I got close enough to make out the top of the gadget I noticed that there were small openings in the gourd-shaped thingamajigs.  Not only were there small openings, there were birds inside of these openings.

"Oh!  It's a sweet looking bird house!"  

     At the time, I had no idea what a Purple Martin was and I had no idea about the unique relationship that exists between humans and the Purple Martin.  It is funny to look back on this experience but I am sure some of you might be able to relate to it.  Since then, I have done a bit of reading on the subject and would like to pass some of this great information on to all of you.

Purple Martins at Cove Island Wildlife Sanctuary - Stamford, CT - John Field / Naturefied


 A Relationship is Forged Between Man and Bird   

     East of the Rocky Mountains, it is said that Purple Martins, the largest swallow in North America would disappear if humans stopped providing them with their gourd-shaped habitations. It has not always been this way, of course. 

     Native Americans used to hang hollowed out gourds from trees in close proximity to their villages.  Eventually, the Purple Martins began to make their nests inside of these gourds as opposed to holes in trees made by woodpeckers and other hollowed out natural cavities. 


You Scratch My Back And I'll Scratch Yours

    The Purple Martins took advantage of their new homes and their close proximity to the Native American villages.  You ask why was this advantageous to the birds?
  • The presence of people near the gourds was enough to keep a number of Purple Martin predators out of the vicinity of the nesting sites. 
  •  The gourds provided much needed space that natural cavities could not offer.

Purple Martin @ Cove Island WS - John Field
This allowed their species to flourish without many hiccups.  As the Purple Martins recognized the benefits of nesting close to humans, more and more of them began to set up shop in these new dwellings.  They began participating in a "behavioral tradition shift." Many, many years have passed and the Purple Martin has now adapted to this environment.  At this point it is all that they know.

The Native Americans who attracted the Purple Martins by hanging up their carved dwellings had an idea in mind too.  Why would they have these birds hanging around their village if they did not serve a purpose for them?  I have read a few theories as to why the Native Americans attracted the Purple Martins year after year.

  • They posed as scarecrows and kept pests from damaging crops
  • They are able to act as a warning signal to notify those of unwanted visitors to the village
  • Martins chased Vultures from meats and hides that were curing outside the village

I am sure there are many more reasons as to how these birds were helpful to the inhabitants of the villages.  Just use your imagination!  I bet they were wonderful company and a spectacle at times.

 The Purple Martin In More Recent Times

     When the Europeans arrived in the "New World" they continued the practice of creating houses for Purple Martins.  All they did was change up the material a bit.  The idea diffused from the Native Americans to the Europeans. 

     The creation of and maintenance of the Purple Martin house has continued up through today which is why we have approximately one million people who try to attract Purple Martins each year in their own yards.  There are many unique styles of Purple Martin houses available and some of them are quite beautiful.  If you are able to attract a Martin, or a Martin colony, they should return year after year as long as you keep the nesting area tidy.  The problem that Martins are facing is very harsh competition for nesting from the House Sparrow and European Starling, two non-native species.

The video above shows a fantastic setup of the Purple Martin Houses.  Look how many this person was able to attract!  And you can enjoy watching them gang up on Mr. Squirrel.  Hope you all enjoyed this post and most of all I hope you have learned as much as I have! 

Your comments are always appreciated.  Thanks for visiting!

For more information on this incredible species and how you can take measures to secure their future, please visit http://purplemartin.org/main/mgt.html.





1 comment:

  1. Poor squirrel, run for cover! I have never seen that many Purple Martin and Purple Martin houses in one place before.