Monday, May 17, 2010

You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille...

"…with four hungry children and a crop in the field!" Thank you, Kenny Rogers (and MM) for the title of this post!

Yesterday as I was weeding the beet row (an arduous task that bends my back to the task—which I call tweezer weeding)..I heard overhead the liquid trilling of what I knew to be a tree swallow. Having accepted the fact that we’d not deployed the Purple Martin house at the correct time, and had gotten a pair of tree swallows to reside in our PM house, instead, I was good with that. The tree swallows are beautiful and delightful to watch, even though I would have preferred to lease the birdhouse to the four Purple Martins that arrived later and flew over us with great fanfare, and that would have occupied the apartment building in growing numbers as they annually returned to our garden.

I learned too late that I should not have put up the Purple Martin house until one month AFTER I’d seen the first Purple Martin pair. That’s because the Martins that arrive first (from their long migration) are the previous year’s nesters, making that group return to the nesting cavity they used last year. On the other hand, it is the youngest males that will be attracted to new housing, who will begin their own colony and be most likely to nest in a new location.

Purple Martins ONLY nest in human-made facilities. Over the years, they have apparently (largely) lost their ability to nest in tree cavities. After many generations they have come to depend upon human intervention as a key to propogation. But there is no shortage of humans willing to fill that need. Being a “landlord” for Purple Martins, and growing colonies of these pest-eating, beautiful birds, is a very popular hobby across the U. S.

Despite the fact that Purple Martins prefer a colony of neighbors for nesting, they do prefer small divisions between their town houses, and are quite fussy about their dimensional choices in house compartments. A lot of ready-to-nest houses sold have incorrect dimensions which can result in year after year of rejection by the PM's, should the prospective landlord put up a Martin house that is not properly designed. The dimensions for each cubicle –specifically for Purple Martins—should be 6 inches wide, by 12 inches deep, by 6 inches long. (Our current house is the wrong size.)  Many plans design more for the convenience of the lumber/plastic requirements rather than the needs of the bird. If the birdbox isn’t deep enough, owls will reach in and grab nestlings. And, PM's feel cramped in 6X6X6 apartments.  They want more space.  Most purchased houses are simply wrong-sized. You also have to watch out for snakes (check out Beth’s comment on my Friday post). Several “free” plans available on the Internet are simply not suited for Purple Martins (despite being advertised as such) and the unwary hopeful landlord will put up purchased housing, only to be disappointed by other species taking over. (Such as has happened to us.) So, be careful and proceed knowledgably. Don't get suckered into buying a dud of a house! 

Of course, on the Internet, there are all kinds of choices. You can purchase a ready made Purple Martin house at ONLY $400+ (by golly it had better be “ready made” at that price! How about fifteen houses for that amount??!!) There are other houses less pricey, but most without adequate dimensions for the nesting cavity. Then, once you have a house, you need a pole that can raise and lower the house so it can be cleaned out of nests from the previous nesting season. If you're handy with woodworking, the best option is to build your own.

I guess my overall message here is that if you want to cultivate Purple Martins, (and there are plenty of reasons why you'd want to, as I do) there’s a lot more than meets the eye, than just putting up a house. If you’re contemplating erecting a PM house, read up on what these lovely birds require before spending a lot of money on facilities that are destined to be empty or worse, become nesting holes for starlings, English sparrows, and….tree swallows.  Timing and nest dimensions, height...are all important considerations.  We're going to plan a year ahead and try again next May, having written down the arrival time, this year of the PM's.

Now, what about Lucille? Well…..the warbly chirping was coming from the house. Looking carefully, upward, I saw this male (as you see in the photo) with head poking out of the hole. He kept up a steady cadence of rather demanding chirps. I was just about to take a second (camera) shot of him, when “Lucille” arrived, offered the male a couple of sharp squeaks, told him she was back and to get out. At which point, he flew out and she flew in. He headed over to the neighbors, and I never saw the female (dark brown) again. I would say that she had gone for water and a quick break, (I’ll have to put up a bird bath in the veggie garden this week) while he was assigned the task of looking after the eggs. As far as I could tell, he hadn’t sat on the first egg, but rather –in a bit of a panic--clung to the threshold the whole time, crying for….Lucille. I believe I’ll name them Lucille and Kenny. Kenny, I think, is a new dad.  And though they aren’t Purple Martins, they are a winsome couple with perhaps (forgive my anthropomorphizing) similar spats as humans have. Whose turn is it now to look after the kids out here JOTOLR?


  1. For the second year running there is no sign of the house martins who for over 10 years would build their little mud houses under the eaves of our house. However the swallows are back. They prefer to build their mud nests inside out buildings. One pair are nesting in the old pump house and have to swoop in low through the shelter and a doorway to get to their nest. There are lots of other pairs about and it is lovely to watch them darting through the air after small flying bugs. In the later evening they are joined by small pipistrelle bats that have a summer roost in one of our lofts.

  2. Elora, Purple Martins are lovely birds and so beneficial to our environment. Unfortunately, I do not have the pleasure of owning a Purple Martin house.

    One housing style for the PMs, that I have noticed in this part of KY, is the hanging gourds type. Using gourds for PM housing is an old tradition in the south. But now instead of using real gourds you can buy synthetic white gourds for Purple Martin housing. They don't have the same charm as real gourds. I imagine the PM nests would be difficult to remove from the synthetic gourds. With the real gourds, you could just remove the gourds containing old nests and throw it in the compost pile -- and start in the Spring with new gourds. Also, I wonder if the synthetic gourds have the right compartment size?

    It's great that you pointed out that the size is so important to attract Purple Martins. Good post!