The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Purple Martins are Due
Ro Wauer, February 8, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

It is once again time to get the martin houses ready for their arrival. Some of the first males can arrive in South Texas the first week of February. And the females and the slower individuals may not be far behind. So, if you have been postponing your preparations, get with it!

Although many of the purple martins that utilize sites throughout our part of Texas may not arrive until early March, males may already be scouting their ancestral home sites. Not finding a readied house can mean that they may shift their homing interests elsewhere. Preparing for their homecoming often requires little more than reinstalling an already clean house. But it may also mean cleaning out the spiderwebs and insects that may have laid claims since the rightful tenants vacated in midsummer of last year. If you have not taken last year's martin house out of the weather, you may have the additional chore of cleaning out nesting materials that were deposited there by invading competitors such as house sparrows and starlings.

For those of you new to attracting martins, here are some easy rules to follow:
* Houses must contain apartments with at least a 6x6-inch floor space and an entrance hole 1 3/4-inch in diameter and 1 inch above the floor.
* Houses must be placed on poles 12 to 20 feet above the ground and should be 40 feet away from taller trees, poles, and other structures.
* Poles must be free of vines and shrubs that might allow access to the house by predators.
* Houses must be free of nesting materials and other debris that accumulated in the off-season.
Purple martins often are rather finicky at the start but seem to put up with shorter poles and poorly maintained structures once the colony is established. Most birds are repeats, but the majority of the first-year birds (usually last year's youngsters) seek out new sites, usually in the generally area of their natal homesite. This means that a new martin house, especially if it is in the proximity of an active martin house, is likely to be used early on. Distance houses are not as likely to be selected.

An established purple martin colony is likely to return year after year so long as you maintain the house and environment. They will consume millions of flying insects during the short time they are with us. And they will also provide us with their marvelous songs from long before dawn to throughout the day and evening. But by mid- to late July they will leave our neighborhoods and begin their 5,000-mile southward journey to their wintering grounds in South America.

For those of you wanting to know more about these marvelous creatures, you might consider joining the Purple Martin Conservation Association at www.purplemartin. org or by telephone: 814-734-4420. This organization has everything you may ever want to know about purple martins. You can check the martin's fairly status as they move northward into the United States and all across the Continent, martin events, links to other purple martin activities and programs, a forum for questions, and supplies.

Purple martins are fascinating birds, and one of the few that is so highly dependent upon human beings. That places them into a rather unique relationship with us, and also one that offers a fascinating window into the natural world.

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