Purple Martin Event, Forest Park, 090715

July 11, 2015



Forest Park Forever had organized another session with

John Miller


where he would tell us about the

Purple Martins


These birds, though listed as of Least Concern, were threatened. The wiki entry says, "Purple martins suffered a severe population crash in the 20th century widely linked to the release and spread of European starlings in North America. Starlings and house sparrows compete with martins for nest cavities. Where purple martins once gathered by the thousands, by the 1980s they had all but disappeared." Several people, including John Miller, are working steadily to ensure that they do not die out, especially because they have become almost entirely dependent on human-provided housing, and cannot nest on their own! Adult males are entirely black with glossy steel blue sheen, the only swallow in North America with such coloration. Adult females are dark on top with some steel blue sheen, and lighter underparts. All in all, a fascinating bird to keep learning more about! These birds hawk insects (mainly dragonflies, apparently) high up in the air (mainly dragonflies, but other insects as opportunity provides) IMG_2166 unlike their cousins the Barn Swallows, which swoop over the grass and fields, catching insects just above the ground. IMG_2209 IMG_2151 I walked over a little early, but John was already at the nesting boxes. IMG_2144 He determined that I was a birdwtcher and not a random tourist, and decided that he'd let me watch what he was doing...checking both the "house" IMG_2230 and "gourd" IMG_2244 type of nests, following a meticulous list. IMG_2201 He showed me this baby bird. IMG_2145 He said that out of the 67 "homes" that have been provided for the Purple Martins in Forest Park, 63 have been occupied, and he's seen as many babies fledge this year as he's ever done in the 10 years (since 2005) that he's been involved in this work. The nests were earlier in the form of bird "houses", but increasingly, John and his team of volunteers find that the gourd-shape gives better protection to the nestlings because of the deep bowl-depression in the center. IMG_2215 John has also incorporated a vent in the design of these plastic gourds, as well as a "jar-lid" type of unscrewing lid that he can gain access to the nests with. IMG_2233 He says that a set of gourds like this one would cost around $600, but they can last forever, with maybe just the lids needing replacement sometimes. I was trying to find out how the design of these gourds has evolved, but I think John could not understand my accent. However, I realized that it is he who has been refining the design of these homes. Some of them now have "owl guards" to prevent the Great Horned Owls (sorry, Mark Glenshaw , Charles and Sarah not welcome here....) Those curved long pieces are what keep owls out. IMG_2171 And when there are sites threatened by construction, he works actively to find alternative places where these homes can be erected. He showed us the fledglings that were sitting on top of a nearby tree. IMG_2195 IMG_2168 (out of nowhere, this Eastern Kingbird flew in, perched for a while on the martin-homes, and then flew off. IMG_2198 I quickly took a snap!) He said that they would return to their nests for shelter for a week or two after fledging...I've never heard of this bird-behavior before. He also laughed and mentioned that newly-fledged birds are more heedful of their parents and settle down into the nest quickly at dusk... IMG_2222 but older fledglings are more rowdy and adventurous, not realizing that they are at risk from predators (raccoons and owls...apparently there are no snakes like the Black Snake,which raid birds' nests, in Forest Park). IMG_2219 He "changed" a nest, that had got soggy and moldy with the recent rain, IMG_2161 and took out the nestlings while he did this. It was a sight to see him put them in his bucket, IMG_2156 IMG_2158 and he lovingly lifted them and put them back once he'd set in a new bed of pine needles for them. IMG_2163 In other nests and gourds, there were nestlings in various stages of growth. IMG_2174 IMG_2173 IMG_2207 From egg-hatching to fledging IMG_2155 takes about 28 days, so we were there in just the right window of breeding. Wintering in South America, purple martins migrate to North America in spring to breed. Spring and fall migration are both somewhat staggered.Soon, he said, the birds would be on their way south, to the Amazon basin("I think they speak Portugese over there," John quipped) and would return next year. IMG_2202 The bird would not mind nesting in the same sites year after year, but volunteers clean some of them out in the interests of cleanliness. Mites can often proliferate and if too numerous on the nestlings' bodies, might cause them to fledge too early. His passion for these beautiful birds shows every time I meet him; "enchanting" is the word he uses for them. He showed us these excellent portraits of the male IMG_2242 and female IMG_2243 birds. IMG_2191 I thought I'd need to be over 6 feet tall to look into the nests, but John later provided a small step-ladder so that we could look at, IMG_2203 and photograph, IMG_2205 the nestlings. Though the parents flew around, waiting with food in their mouths, they did not seem unduly alarmed, and have probably got used to people like John not causing them harm. IMG_2178 They went in to feed the nestlings and came out with the fecal sacs, and flew off to "dispose" of them elsewhere...Good Housekeeping! IMG_2188 Certainly, a symbiotic relationship where humans provide them shelter and they provide hours of delight in return! I asked him about the fake Purple Martin I'd seen at the gourds at the Wehr Nature Park in Milwaukee, and he said that some people used decoys, hoping to get the birds to nest in the gourds...however, not always successful, and no one still knew what exactly made the birds decide to use a particular set of "houses" or gourds. IMG_2183 He talked about the various locations of the homes in Forest Park and elsewhere in St.Louis. After he winched the homes back up in the air, attached the raccoon-guards on the poles, and we moved further away, the martins flew back in large numbers. IMG_2223 The fledglings had learnt how to fly, but not yet how to land! They quarreled and bickered among each other, just like human children. As they settled down for the night, IMG_2225 IMG_2227 IMG_2252

and the lights came up to dispel the growing darkness of dusk,


we bid goodbye to the Purple Martins in the purple twilight,


and went on our way.


I’ve referred to the Purple Martins in other posts,