The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Are You Prepared for Purple Martins?
by Ro Wauer

Already purple martins are being seen along our coast with a few also being reported inland. So, if you have been waiting for the first scouts to appear, don't wait. Now is the time to get your martin houses ready. That means cleaning your houses, getting rid of the spiderwebs and insects that may have taken over since the rightful tenants vacated last summer, and reinstalling it. Sometimes the martin house will also require a fresh cover of white paint. The light color helps to reflect the hot Texas sun and also to highlight the entrance holes.

In case this is your first time at attracting martins, here are some easy rules to follow:
. Step one is to acquire a martin house. They are readily available at many retail outlets. The single-story houses are not recommended.

. Houses must contain apartments with at least a 6x6-inch floor space and an entrance hole 11/4 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 a new martin house, usually in the general 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. Distant houses are not as likely to be selected.

If you are attempting to attract martins to a new site for the first time, once martins have returned to the general area, it sometimes works to play a tape of their dawn chorus in the vicinity. Playing purple martin songs at a new martin house will certainly attract their attention.

And if they like the surrounds, they will probably remain and nest. If not, give it time, and sooner or later you will attract martins, usually first-year birds, that will begin a new colony.

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 migration to their wintering grounds in South America.

But rather than think about their departure, think first about their arrival. It is now time to prepare. Good luck!


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