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Attracting purple martins.

Thousands of years ago, North American Indians discovered that if they placed gourds with holes in them on the ends of poles, purple martins would nest in them.

It must have been a novelty at first, and the person who made the discovery must have been pretty proud of himself or herself, but before long, Indians came to realize that there were many benefits in having the noisy little song birds around.

Martins tend to return to their nesting sites on approximately the same date each year, which provided Indians with a calendar of sorts. Their noisy chatter at dawn probably doubled as an alarm clock for the village. Since a breeding aggregation of martins sings almost constantly during daylight hours, their utterances supplied the Indians with a continuous background of pleasant music long before Marconi and the radio were born or discovered.

Purple martins recognize humans that "belong" around their nesting sites and raise a fuss when strangers approach. In this regard, they could have served as "watchdogs" at the camps.

If crows, buzzards, or hawks approach too closely to their colonies, martins give chase en masse. For people that may have had venison and their meat hanging in trees, the martins provided an invaluable security service against aerial theft.

The eating habits of insect-loving martins helped to keep flies, mosquitoes, and other insect pests in check around village sites. They are kind of a bug-zapper with wings, yet energy efficient and not harmful at all to the environment.

In the days before television, Indians had to appreciate martins for the beauty and the comic relief watching them provided. Martins are game players. They soar and swoop. They dive at each other. They chase other birds. Sometimes they'll take a leaf up high in the air and drop it, then dive at it again and again as it flutters to the ground. A world of entertainment for free.

Martins benefited from the Indians as well. Originally they nested in abandoned woodpecker holes and other cavities they could find in trees. Nesting in the wild, they, their eggs and their young fell prey to a host of predators: owls, raccoons, squirrels, opossums, and snakes.

Nesting near the villages kept most of their predators away and martins probably had much higher rates of reproductive success. Over time they came to prefer nesting in proximity to human activity to nesting in the wild. In scientific circles, this change in habitat or preference is known as a "tradition shift" and it occurs slowly, over hundreds if not thousands of years.

Dependent on humans

Today, purple martins are totally dependent on human-supplied housing in the eastern half of North America. They do not breed in the wild east of the Rocky Mountains. If people stopped providing martin houses and gourds for them to nest in, they would cease to breed and their populations would be decimated.

In the 1800's when America was primarily an agricultural country, most farmers continued the tradition started by Native Americans and provided nesting cavities for purple martins, A prosperous martin colony was considered to be a sign of good luck and no farm of any consequence was complete without one.

Martin populations thrived with the increase of open farmland habitat, a clean environment (pre-pesticides), and the multiple-cavity martin houses that were erected by farmers. This was also before English sparrows and European starlings were introduced to North America. Both species are aggressive nest-site competitors that have hurt populations of native song birds, especially martins and bluebirds.

Since World War I, however, things have changed considerably. Americans began a massive migration from farms and rural areas to cities and suburbs. Large tracts of farmland lay fallow, grew up to brush or were gobbled up by the corporate farming industry. Rural traditions, like erecting martin houses, were abandoned.

These trends, coupled with the introduction of sparrows and starlings, have led to the decline of martin populations from the numbers they enjoyed in the 19th Century. However, the decline may have bottomed out because purple martin populations are once again on the rise.

According to the Purple Martin Conservation Association at Edinboro University, in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, purple martin populations are increasing continent-wide. They base that statement on the interpretation of a 21 year study known as the Breeding Bird Survey, conducted annually by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

However, they further point out that when viewed on a regional scale, purple martin populations are declining in the northern half of the U.S., while most of the increase has been in the South.

Regardless of where you live, however, the Purple Martin Conservation Association recommends that everyone with suitable habitat erect a martin house to help their populations fill the skies as they did in the last century.

Purple martins are aeral feeders and require a house or hollow gourds erected on a pole that is a mininum of ten feet above the ground (higher is better). The house has to be at least 40 feet or more away from any tall trees or other obstructions. Keeping houses far from trees and bushes also helps minimize invasion by starlings or sparrows.

The colony site should, however, be within 200 feet of a house, barn, or other area of human activity. Martins have come to recognize these areas as safer places to nest.

The most attractive location for a martin house would include all of the above recommendations, plus border on an open area like a pond, swamp, lake, or farm field.

Martin houses

Houses should be a minimum of four or more compartments, with a compartment size of 6"x6"x6' or larger, and entrance holes within 1/4 " of a two-inch diameter. Houses should be painted predominantly white to reflect the light and heat of the sun. They should also be well-ventilated.

There are a variety of martin houses on the market for you to choose from. Aluminum and wooden houses are in the $50 to $100-plus range and require a steel or aluminum pole costing an additional $50.

For people who want to try to get martins without investing an arm and a leg, the Erie Bay Company offers a four-compartment Martin Startin' house kit for only $24.85, plus a $3.50 shipping and handling charge. The kits come complete and only require the additional purchase of paint and glue. There is no measuring or cutting required.

Assembled units weigh under ten pounds and can be mounted on 1-1/2" PVC pipe poles available at most hardware stores for under $5. Kit assembly instructions include information on how to make a PVC mounting system.

A free "Startin' Martins" how-to pamphlet and a free informational color brochure is available by writing Erie Bay Company, Dept. CS, P.O. Bo, 568 Erie, PA 16512-0568 or calling (814) 833-2340.

Becoming a martin landlord is a wonderful hobby that anyone with an appreciation for the beauty of nature and all the creatures that interact within it would enjoy. Martins are fun to listen to and fun to watch. Once they get used to you at the colony site, you can approach to within six feet of them before they'll fly. How many other wild birds can you see that close?

Perhaps the most important reason to become a martin landlord is that they are a valuable part of our environment and a rural tradition. They depend completely on mankind for nesting cavities. Putting up a martin house and managing the colony is one way that we all can help to conserve a beautiful gift of nature.
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Title Annotation:birdhouse construction
Author:Wayman, Dave
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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