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It’s In Your Nature: How to outfit a purple martin ‘condo’

Our area hosts six different swallow species. The largest of these is the purple martin. Barn and tree swallows may be the most familiar to you and they reach about 6½ inches in size. Both are rather slim and streamlined. Purple martins attain 8 inches in size, and their bodies are “chunkier.” Purple martins are found throughout our country but eastern and western birds choose different nesting sites. Almost all eastern purple martins utilize commercially made purple martin houses, gourd houses, or a variety of local craftsmen’s versions of both. Western martins choose hollow trees or abandoned woodpecker nesting cavities.

Purple martins return here soon after tree swallows (earliest arriving swallows). One limitation to their success happens every few years when, after a very long migration, they find two or three consecutive cold days where no or little flying insects are found. Tree swallows, many which can feed on coastal bayberries, are more adaptable to the cold. Martins apparently don’t eat anything else but aerial insects. They may succumb after a few very cold days.

Males, the first to arrive, initially defend the whole nesting box from interlopers. In a few days they eventually just defend the nest box opening. Even the female martins are quite territorial until nesting begins. I’ve known a few people, living in ideal martin habitat, erect their martin houses and in their first year, the martins begin nesting. Some other have not been so lucky. I checked in on Roy Christman, a Big Creek Valley resident, whose habitat is perfect. After a few years, no success. Hopefully, next year Roy.

Once martins have successful broods, they return to the same breeding area year after year. If I haven’t added purple martins to my yearly Carbon County list, I head to a long-standing martin complex near Gypsy Hill, or Cunfer’s farm in East Penn. One problem “naturalists” encounter is the aggressive starlings and house sparrows that actually out-compete them for the sites. To stop those introduced and unwanted intruders, the martin boxes need to be put up about the end of April when the first males arrive. If the martin gourds, “condos,” or nest boxes are open too early the sparrows or starlings take over. On my drive to Palmerton, I pass a martin “condo” that’s been there for years and only house sparrows are the takers. Although quite pricey, the best way to successfully attract martins is to purchase commercially made “condos” and then the expensive telescoping poles allowing you to put them up at the appropriate time and later to possibly clean out the cavities. If you wish to see this “set up” drive into the Pine Rod Cove boat launch area at Beltzville Lake.

Martins have one, and sometimes two broods per year, with four young the norm. The young have the dull color of the females. A few weeks after fledging, the young and the adults leave the area in flocks. As with so many of our breeding birds, the martins choose Brazil, Argentina and the Amazonia area to overwinter. With the over-development and clearing of these areas the purple martin populations shrink every year. If you wish to try to tempt them to your property, construction plans for the houses, and manufactured “units” and even telescoping poles can be ordered by searching a number of sources. A telescoping arrangement is in place near the Pine Run Cove Boat launch at Beltzville and is hosting a number of martin pairs.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: Of the following swallow species, which one could you probably still see in this area in early October? A. purple martin; B. barn swallow; C. rough-winged swallow; D. tree swallow.

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: Even though “ruby throats’ are highly specialized to reach nectar in tubular flowers, they will supplement their diet with small insects like gnats. I watched one snatch a gnat from a flower and then carefully “get it down” that thin bill. Cool.

Email Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com

A male purple martin begins to enter a nesting cavity in a martin nesting colony at Beltzville State Park. I included this photo to show part of the telescoping pole that is used to install the nesting area each spring to anticipate the arrival of the males to the area. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
A pair of purple martins “guard” their nest cavity opening on a wooden martin condo at the Meadows at Cape May, New Jersey. You can see the hinged sides allowing the cleaning of the boxes at the end of the nesting season.
A purple martin male is probably really a deep blue color. They catch aerial insects, only landing on the ground to get grit for their gizzards and to gather some nesting material.
A male tree swallow is “slimmer” than a martin and has a bright white breast and belly. Both, of course, can be found breeding in our local region.