Editor’s Note: This is the third and final article in our series on Purple Martins.
If you’ve followed the guidelines recommended by experts such as the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Purple Martin Conservation Association for preparing your site, you have optimized your chances of attracting these majestic birds. Now comes the fun part! Nesting season!
Open For Business
The first step to starting a new colony is to open up your house. Purple Martins generally begin arriving in Texas from South America around the middle of February, but have been known to appear as early as January and as late as March. They continue to trickle in over the next 12 to 16 weeks, with the older males arriving first, followed by older females and younger ones arriving later.
They remain only until their young have fledged — about 28 days. Then they begin their long journey back to South America. By the end of September, they will have left Texas.
The older adults generally return to the same site at which they bred the previous year. It is the younger birds, called sub-adults, or second-year martins, returning for their first nesting season that will be seeking a new home. These are the ones most likely to start a new colony. Wait until about four weeks after the first Martins have arrived in the area to open your housing.
It’s important to not open your house too soon. Otherwise, European Starlings and House Sparrows will take over the nesting compartments and prevent Martins from colonizing. Starlings and sparrows are both very aggressive non-native species that easily repel Purple Martins. Starlings will injure or even kill adult Martins, and destroy their nests, eggs and nestlings. Sparrows and starlings have even been known to constructs nests right on top of Martin nestlings. So your first job as Martin landlord is to keep these non-native birds away from your colony.
You may need to tear out nests, set traps or take other measures to rid them from the site. If native birds try to nest in your Martin house, you should close up all the compartments and put up a single unit box for these desirable species elsewhere. After the native birds have accepted the new nesting box, you can reopen your Martin house.
Even if you’ve done everything right, you may not attract any birds in the first year. Purple Martins are very gregarious and prefer to nest where others have already staked out a site. Don’t get discouraged. Although it may take a while to successfully start a colony, your patience will be rewarded. Once your first set of birds fledges young, you can expect annual visits from Purple Martins for as long as you continue to properly manage your site.
Go Ahead! Take a Peek
The other vital task of the landlord is nest checking. Far from harming the birds, you can provide valuable aid that will help sustain the colony. Nest checks will not cause Martins to abandon their young.
You should check nests at least once a week. Female Martins lay three to seven eggs per brood, which hatch in about 16 days. Number each compartment and keep written records of when and how many eggs have been laid in each nest, ages of nestlings and their condition. In addition, you should make a daily check of the area under the house. Look for plucked feathers, thrown-out nestlings, hatched egg shells, etc. By keeping detailed records, you can return nestlings that might have fallen to their proper place. Likewise, missing eggs or nestlings probably indicate the presence of predators.
Stand By to Rescue Your House Guests
Some of the other problems you may encounter may include poor weather conditions and parasite infestations. Prolonged bad weather can create scarcities of the insects that Purple Martins need to live. After four to five days without food, they will begin to starve to death. Extreme heat can also kill nestlings. You can alleviate food shortages by feeding them mealworms and crickets.
Wet nests and parasites are another threat to nestlings. Keep plenty of clean, dry nesting material nearby, including a supply of mud, dried pine needles, dry twigs or a bale of straw.
Sick or injured birds should be taken to a wildlife rehabilitator. Keep the name and phone number of a licensed rescue organization or contact the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Finally, don’t close your Martin house down too soon. Fledglings begin searching for next years’ breeding sites in late summer before they fly South for the winter. Active management is essential to the Purple Martin’s survival. With your help, these swallows will continue to serenade Texans for generations to come.
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