In the birding world, few species generate more excitement than does the Purple Martin, a swallow that is arriving now in Ohio, with reports of scouts logged almost daily online.
Purple martins, the largest of the swallows in North America, are totally dependent on man-made housing east of the Rockies and faithfully return to the same locations each year, so it’s understandable that human landlords anxiously await the return of their birds from wintering grounds in South America.
Arrivals are posted on an online database, at www.purplemartin.org, maintained by the Purple Martin Conservation Association (PMCA), a nonprofit conservation organization.
Among arrivals so far: Athens March 10; Marysville March 30; Chillicothe March 31 and a martin reached its home colony site in Port Clinton on Lake Erie April 1.
The first wave is made up of adult martins, those two or more years old, with adult males sporting full dark-purple color. Females are a bit drab, with a gray breast. One-year-old martins, called subadults, appear 6 to 8 weeks later, well into early June in Ohio. These younger birds sometimes are more easily attracted to new housing locations. The term “scout” is a misnomer. These are simply experienced birds that are eager to reclaim their housing.
Purple martins prefer to nest in colonies in gourds hung from large racks and in multi-compartment birdhouses.
Purple martins feed on the wing, taking insects from the air, and early arrivals sometimes face the prospect of starvation when cold snaps clear the air of insects. Landlords can provide live mealworms or crickets that have been frozen and then thawed, and even bits of scrambled eggs. The food is placed on high platforms, in nesting compartments or flung into the air with plastic spoons or slingshots.
In late summer, purple martins gather in massive roosts in preparation for fall migration.
While martins prefer open flyways to their housing, the species does seem to prefer nesting close to human activity, perhaps because there are fewer predators.
A generation ago, many people erected purple martin houses in the belief that these birds consumed mosquitoes, but according to the PMCA martins do not specialize. A martin’s diet is diverse and includes many kinds of insects from leafhoppers, flies and beetles to dragonflies, bees, wasps and grasshoppers.
Because purple martins are birds of the open sky, catching insects on the fly, the PMCA's number one tip: place housing in the most open space available, but where the colony can be enjoyed and monitored.
More information about purple martins can be obtained from the Purple Martin Conservation Association, which is focused on aiding martins and their landolords. To obtain the booklet, contact the PMCA at 814-833-7656 or online at www.purplemartin.org. The website also has an active online Forum, and many hobbyists participate in the group’s Facebook page and Twitter account.