The “Purple Ardour” of North America’s Purple Martin Landlords


The sight of 100 thousand Purple Martins swirling throughout a South Carolina sky factors up the enduring attraction of those beautiful dive-bombing swallows.

From the Spring 2023 concern of Dwelling Chicken journal. Subscribe now.

On a quiet August morning Captain Zach Steinhauser unties his Bennington tritoon boat from a dock on Lake Murray, a 50,000-acre reservoir about 15 miles from Columbia, South Carolina. The sky is blanketed by thick clouds, imparting a reasonably unseasonable monochromatic look to the favored leisure space.

“We’re on the tail finish of the season, however they’re nonetheless there,” he says as we embark on a fast experience to Bomb Island. The 12-acre island—lined in shrubs, timber, and a few shortleaf pine alongside its western shore—was used for observe runs by B-25 bombers throughout World Conflict II. At this time the island is utilized by one other acrobatic flyer that’s the rationale for our early-morning sojourn: Purple Martins.

North America’s largest swallow, Purple Martins first arrived on the island in 1988. Yearly since (apart from 2014, once they mysteriously abandoned the island in favor of 1 25 miles away), a whole bunch of hundreds of martins have been roosting at this spot in the course of South Carolina for just a few quick weeks from July by means of mid-August. Bomb Island is likely one of the largest roosting websites for the species wherever, and by far the biggest on the East Coast of the USA. Right here the reasonably loquacious little birds can socialize, relaxation, and feed on the realm’s plentiful bugs earlier than they embark on the following leg of their 3,000-mile migration to South America.  

Purple Martins at a gourd-shaped home. Photograph by Alex Eberts/Macaulay Library.

On this late-summer morning, what started as just a few birds flying overhead quickly multiplied into the tens of hundreds. Taking off in unison, the tiny black sparkles of every particular person chicken reworked right into a monolith above. Modern accounts have in contrast the clouds of Purple Martins round Bomb Island to the ominous flocks in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, or the apocalyptic skies in Netflix’s Stranger Issues. However there was nothing sinister about this aerial spectacle of martin plenty; it was equal components awe and motion. Birds skimmed the water not more than an arm’s size from the boat; others scooped downward catching bugs.

“To the best! To the best!! Right here they arrive!” shouted Steinhauser over the cacophony of chicken calls and wing flutters as one other, even bigger martin flock swooped straight parallel to the boat in synchrony. These huge takeoffs from martin roosting websites are so enormous that they are often detected on climate radar.  

“How superior was that?” Steinhauser requested after the joy concluded. Purple Martin is the one species that has enthralled him for years. Whereas he carries many titles—boat captain, naturalist, photographer, grasp gardener—Steinhauser at age 30 has lengthy fancied himself primarily as a filmmaker specializing in pure historical past.

“I at all times had desires of turning into a wildlife filmmaker and recreation ranger in Africa,” he says, carrying his trademark inexperienced button-down shirt and backward-facing ball cap. These desires modified a bit after he contacted established filmmakers for tips about the way to break into the career. The overarching theme from every dialog: “Purchase a digital camera and discover native tales,” he says with a slight chuckle.

And so he did. He first found the Bomb Island martin roost as a 5-year-old boy in 1998, whereas on a household tour. However he admits he didn’t assume a lot about Bomb Island till he was a younger grownup obsessive about wildlife.

“I discovered the right story and it was proper in my yard,” he says.

Steinhauser is way from alone in his obsession with the little midnight-blue jet-fighter birds that streak by means of the air like daredevils and roost communally in prolonged households. The Purple Martin Conservation Affiliation, primarily based in Pennsylvania, estimates that greater than 150,000 lively martin colonies throughout North America are managed by individuals who keep synthetic nest websites. The PMCA calls these folks Purple Martin landlords, and so they actually love their martins.

“Purple Martin landlord tradition is exclusive,” says Robyn Bailey, undertaking chief for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s NestWatch program.  

“I believe that individuals who put up these buildings, they’re additionally paying shut consideration to what’s happening,” Bailey says, noting that martin landlords in NestWatch observe knowledge on when the birds arrive in spring, what number of eggs hatch, and what number of chicks fledge. “That is a part of what types the bond.”

Bomb Island on Lake Murray in central South Carolina hosts the biggest identified Purple Martin roost on the East Coast. For just a few weeks in midsummer, a whole bunch of hundreds of martins collect each evening. Photograph by Mark Hendricks.

To assist finance his budding profession as a filmmaker, Steinhauser earned his United States Coast Guard captain’s license and commenced main Purple Martin ecotours to Bomb Island in 2018. He quickly discovered that the species faces quite a lot of conservation woes far past the shores of Lake Murray.

“General the final downside is a declining inhabitants, 25% to 30% decline over 50 years,” says Joe Siegrist, president and CEO of the PMCA.  

Zach Steinhauser’s longtime movie undertaking—a documentary about Purple Martins, is slated for streaming launch in 2024.

The Purple Martin is an aerial insectivore, or chicken that hunts flying bugs on the wing, which makes the species susceptible to disruptions in insect prey availability. In keeping with Siegrist, a mess of things could also be contributing to martin declines, together with the direct lack of bugs from the widespread use of pesticides and timing mismatches resulting from phenology shifts from local weather change.

“Some native and regional declines are a lot worse, with close to extirpation from areas of their historic vary in New England. Nevertheless, these areas will be bordered by areas of long-term enhance,” provides Siegrist. “It’s positively a fancy system with completely different contributions of things in numerous components of the vary. It’s a tall order for us to make sense of the information and decide the key elements at play for positive.”  

Not like many chicken species in bother, breeding habitat is just not regarded as a significant component in martin declines, as a result of people have had a net-positive impact in supporting Purple Martin breeding populations over the previous century. Purple Martins are one of many few chicken species which have shifted to nesting in synthetic cavities. Martins by no means made their very own nesting cavities; traditionally they used cavities created by different species, akin to woodpeckers nesting alongside forest edges, or holes discovered naturally in cliffs.  

Nesting cavity competitors from invasive European Starlings and Home Sparrows has lengthy been an issue for all three subspecies of Purple Martins—Progne subis subis, which breeds throughout japanese North America; Progne subis arboricola, which breeds in western North America; and Progne subis hesperia, which breeds principally within the Desert Southwest of Arizona and Mexico. At this time virtually the whole thing of the japanese martin subspecies (subis) nests in synthetic housings—about 95% of the full japanese martin inhabitants, in line with Siegrist. The hesperia and arboricola subspecies nonetheless nest in pure cavities, akin to saguaro cacti and lifeless snags.  

Centuries in the past, Indigenous peoples began the observe of offering nesting habitat for Purple Martins. When tribes strung up gourds to dry them out—so that they might be used as vessels for storing water or meals—martins would transfer in and nest in them. In flip the tribes found that martins supplied a pure safety system, erupting into alarm calls if an animal like a bear confirmed as much as raid the meals provide. Illustration by 2019 Bartels Science Illustrator Jen Lobo.

Steinhauser visited Purple Martin colonies throughout 9 states and traveled far south to martin wintering roosts in Brazil, armed with a Sony camcorder and Nikon DSLR digital camera, to make the documentary Purple Haze: A Conservation Movie. The film, which has been featured at 5 movie festivals and three birding festivals prior to now yr and is slated for streaming launch in 2024, contains Steinhauser’s conversations with biologists in addition to the ultra-passionate individuals who make up considered one of birding’s most fascinating subcultures—Purple Martin landlording.

The observe of individuals offering housing for martins goes again centuries to the Indigenous cultures in North America, who would cling dried gourds for the birds to nest in. Kelly Applegate, a Purple Martin landlord and tribal member and commissioner of pure sources for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota, says that having Purple Martins nest on a tribe’s territory supplied safety.

“Some tribes stored their meat and fish hanging close to the gourds. If a bear confirmed as much as feed on the meals provide the tribe would hear the alarm calls,” he says.  

At this time, turning into a Purple Martin landlord requires an ample funding of time and cash up entrance. A couple of synthetic gourds and an aluminum pole could value between $250 and $300, whereas some high-end Purple Martin homes with 12 or extra nesting compartments can vary as much as $2,000. Each spring, homes have to be correctly cleaned earlier than the birds return between April and Might, after which maintained all through the nesting season. It’s a great factor Purple Martin landlords are an enthusiastic bunch as a result of martin landlording is just not a transient passion or a behavioral part—it’s a way of life.

Purple Martin “landlord” Jim Hottel checks on the martin nesting advanced he constructed for his retirement group in Maryland. Photograph by Mark Hendricks.

On a sunny, chilly afternoon in early March, Jim Hottel walks with me to the T-14 mannequin Purple Martin home he constructed in 2018 for the retirement group the place he lives in Ellicott Metropolis, Maryland. The home is sort of a luxurious condominium advanced for 14 would-be nesting pairs of martins. Having beforehand constructed bluebird containers, Hottel was satisfied by a neighbor to construct a Purple Martin home. Upon completion he was persuaded to function the inaugural landlord. However Hottel didn’t understand that—not like bluebirds, wherein just one nesting pair makes use of a field—martin landlording means serving a soon-to-be-booming colony of feathered tenants.

At first he had the laborious process of eradicating Home Sparrow nests each few days. However when the primary martins arrived, he turned immediately hooked as he appeared in to see how his new tenants had been doing.

“It amazed me to see the mother and father ready patiently, circling overhead, as we checked the nests,” he says.

Hottel was lucky that he had three nests and 10 fledglings throughout that first season in 2019. By 2022, the colony had elevated to 11 nests and 42 fledglings.

“This was the primary time I interacted straight with wild animals in such an intimate means,” says an effusive Hottel, reflecting on the expertise. “Seeing the chicks hatch and develop, and observing the parental oversight, was an exquisite expertise.”  

This early success is just not typical. Puzzled, would-be landlords typically specific their frustrations on social media and web boards. Even Steinhauser, who arrange his first housing in 2018, didn’t have a nest till 2021. Now he has 4 lively martin nests in six gourds, and he has put in gourd racks for 22 different landlords.

“It could possibly take a while, but it surely helps to speak to different landlords,” Steinhauser suggests.

Kelly Applegate has been tending to a wholesome, giant colony of greater than 30 pairs of breeding martins at his house in Mille Lacs for the previous decade. However that’s not all; he additionally tends to martin colonies at his in-laws’ property, at an area park, and at a close-by John Deere dealership. And he has facilitated the institution of 5 different martin colonies managed by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe on tribal land.  

The eBird Tendencies map for Purple Martin exhibits steeply declining breeding populations within the South (pink dots), with some regular or barely rising populations (blue dots) elsewhere within the breeding vary. Purple Martin illustration by Hilary Burn.

Applegate, who additionally based the Minnesota Purple Martin Working Group to create a robust community of martin colonies throughout the state, says the charismatic martins themselves present one of the best gross sales pitch to get folks into landlording.

One yr, the Purple Martins didn’t present as much as their ordinary spot at Bomb Island. This quirky video podcast from NPR dives into the thriller.

“Get in entrance of an lively colony and let the expertise hit you,” Applegate says. “Your first encounter with the chicken leaves an impression that you simply’ll always remember.”  

Billy Ray Morgan is one other martin landlord in Greenwood, South Carolina, whose enthusiasm and outreach have made him a promoter of latest Purple Martin developments. His fascination with the birds started in 1970 when he was a 5-year-old boy, seeing the several types of birdhouses out the window of the yellow bus he rode to highschool. Morgan nonetheless remembers seeing farmhouses with gourds set out for resident martins.  

“Once I first noticed Purple Martins flying round I used to be in awe,” he recollects.  

A few years later in 1989, Morgan—by then an grownup with an vehicle—visited a kind of farmhouses and spoke to the proprietor about turning into a martin landlord. He left with some recommendation and his first 4 gourds. A mere six weeks later, his first nesting pair of Purple Martins arrived, and he has been a martin landlord ever since.

Within the a long time that adopted, Morgan has continued his pleasant methods of strolling as much as a door and placing up a dialog at any time when he sees a house with Purple Martin housing. However lately he’s involved that youthful individuals are not taking on the pastime, and he’s not alone.

A couple of years in the past the PMCA carried out a survey to gauge the age of their membership and social media followers. Tara Dodge, director of outreach on the PMCA, says that the majority respondents had been close to or previous retirement age: 54% of responses had been from folks aged 65 to 79, and 12% had been 80 and above. The identical survey discovered that lower than 1% of respondents had been between the ages of 25 and 34, and 4.6% had been between the ages of 35 and 49.

Dodge says that, given how dependent Purple Martins within the East have turn out to be on people to offer synthetic nest websites, it could be catastrophic for the species if martin landlording had been to cease.

“Even when one can’t host Purple Martins, it’s essential to get folks to care about them,” provides Dodge, who’s a landlord herself. The PMCA is at present engaged on a nationwide interdisciplinary curriculum that they hope to position in colleges to encourage kids and their households to turn out to be martin landlords, and even encourage the academics to lift martin homes on faculty property.

Kelly Applegate says that in his work placing up martin housing throughout Minnesota, he has seen folks of all ages, and from all walks of life, get serious about watching martins and caring for them.

“You don’t should be a sure option to take care of these birds,” Applegate says. “You don’t should be a conservationist, you don’t should be a biologist, you simply want a ardour.”

At one level in his movie, Steinhauser visits an enormous Purple Martin wintering roost on an remoted island within the coronary heart of the Amazon in Brazil. “The martins use this island equally to the best way they use Bomb Island, and a number of birds tagged [at a breeding site] in Pennsylvania had been tracked to this explicit web site [in Brazil],” he says.

After his return house, Steinhauser discovered that one other martin on the roost within the Amazon had been beforehand tagged in Connecticut. It was a poignant second for him.

“It goes to point out how linked this world is, and the significance of conserving habitat for migratory birds on each side of their ranges,” he says.

Again on that August day once I visited Steinhauser’s boat on Lake Murray, two friends accompanied us for a nightfall ecotour to Bomb Island. The sky was stuffed with the sensible shades of orange and blue, and we had been joined by dozens of different boats bobbing and ready close by.

Steinhauser instructed us that the largest shock of his total filmmaking expertise got here when a satellite tv for pc tag that had been fitted to a Purple Martin in Erie, Pennsylvania, pinged simply west of the Bomb Island Roost.

“I spotted how essential this island in my yard was to this species that makes hemispherical migrations, and the way they join us to the world,” Steinhauser says.

Whereas sharing extra information concerning the species, the small, darkish type of a martin flew over the boat. Then just a few extra flew by. Then it was over 100 birds. Steinhauser was fast to scan the sky.

“Right here they arrive!” he shouted.

In regards to the Writer

Mark Hendricks is a contract environmental author, photographer, and school member within the Division of Psychology at Towson College. His subsequent e book, on the Central Appalachians, will probably be launched in spring 2024 by Schiffer Publishing.


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