The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Are You Ready for Purple Martins?
by Ro Wauer

So what else can be expected earlier than normal this year? The weather has already produced a variety of early sightings, and now they include purple martins. But most of us may not be ready for these marvelous birds. So if you enjoy purple martins, clean up your martin houses and get them out so they can be utilized. Cleaning your houses means getting rid of the spiderwebs and insects that may have taken over since the rightful tenants vacated in midsummer of last year. If your houses are faded and worn, you may also need to give them a fresh coat 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:
* Houses must contain apartments with at least a 6 x 6-inch floor space and an entrance hole 1 ¾ 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.
* House 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 general area of the natal homesite. This means that a new martin house, especially it is it in the proximity of an active martin house, is likely to be used early on. Distant houses are not as likely to be selected.

Another way to attract first-year martins is to play a tape or CD of their dawn chorus. Playing purple martin songs at a new martin house will certainly attract their attention. And if they like their new digs, they will probably remain and nest. If not, give it time, and sooner or later you will attract martins 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, including mosquitoes and gnats, 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 time to prepare. Good luck!

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