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Purple martins can be fascinating to watch

    WATKINS GLEN—A symphony of chirping and twittering marks David Crans’ early mornings near his Salt Point Road home.  His purple martins are enjoying the lake, the sun and the company of each other as well as their human protector and landlord.
    For 16 years, Crans has been providing summer homes for these migratory birds, most of whom arrive in April and early May and depart for southern climes when they’re finished raising their babies – generally by early August, though occasionally a family hatches late and stays through September.   Crans became interested in the birds after reading about them and closer acquaintance has increased his fascination.  The largest North American variety of swallow, purple martins have become increasingly dependent on humans for their well-being, particularly for protection against predators and parasites.  
    Among other things, it seems the early birds can’t always get the worms.  In years of inviting early warmth followed by cold snaps, insects hide and insect-eating birds get hungry and weak.  Crans has crickets in the freezer for those times.   It’s an alternative to the heartbreak of discovering, as he once did years ago, before ornithologists found alternatives, a gourd crammed with dead birds, who had snuggled together to keep warm.   A warmed, once-frozen cricket, flung into the air by a bent-back plastic spoon – the style owes a bit to the food-fights that happen among rowdy children eating lunch - can be caught by a purple martin and devoured with the same feeling of accomplishment as having found food on its own.  Crans  will also make scrambled eggs as an emergency food substitute for hungry birds.  The crickets and scrambled eggs may partly explain why his family often lets him enjoy breakfast alone.
    Where birds are concerned, there is always more to learn.  In 2005, Crans’ colony was unexpectedly devastated by an attack of Great Horned owls, who ruthlessly raided the nests, beating out the outside of the martin houses  with their wings to entice birds out for dinner or hovering while they reached inside compartments to grab nestlings with their talons.   Crans built deeper “apartments” to house his birds  and made fence-wire guards to protect from overhead attacks.  Years later, a new generation of purple martins seems to instinctively avoid the area where the worst owl attacks occurred, he says.  
    Netting at the bottom of each pole holding a group of martin houses and gourds – they prefer “cluster housing”  and won’t nest unless they have the opportunity to do so in a group; and they prefer their homes painted white – protects against snakes; a newly designed crescent shaped compartment opening offers a simple mechanical protection against European starlings, who will fight to death to take over a nesting space, and English sparrows, who will enter a nesting compartment and methodically destroy every egg.
    The mess created by a nest full of young birds attracts blow-flies and other parasites; luckily purple martins tolerate – and perhaps even welcome –  human intervention.  Crans regularly inspects nests, removes young birds to check for and remove parasites, then cleans each box, creates a new nest with fresh cedar chips, and replaces the babies.   Sometimes the parents, unfazed by his presence, will wait patiently within the nesting box for the return of the nest and their children.  The job takes about an hour, every five days.  This year, 30 pairs of purple martins produced about 150 babies, of whom a large number survived, though Crans was saddened by the loss of four chicks who were flung out into the lake by the force of a recent windstorm.
    Despite the large number of birds, he knows most of them personally.  Like any landlord, he keeps track of the multiple dwellings, using a spreadsheet to track the progress of each family.  “At the end of the year, I send it to the Purple Martin Society,” he says.  This record-keeping helps advance research on the species.    Perhaps a tenth of the previous years’ hatch, and some of the previous year’s tenants will return the following year, most often pairing off with different mates.   “I worked with the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology on an experimental bird banding project a few summers ago,” he explains; and he also put bands on some of his martins.
    “Not all of them make it across the Gulf of Mexico,” he explains.  It’s a taxing flight for the birds in each direction.   But from the time they arrive, “it’s a lot of fun watching them,” he says, adding, “I’d be more than willing to help people get started.  If more people are doing it, we can help each other.”
    In a few weeks, when the last of the fledglings take flight, it will get really quiet around his dock, he says.  “But we’ve had a good year.  Next year the group will be bigger.”



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