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  • Writer's pictureStaci-lee Sherwood

Saving the Purple Martins from extinction in 2024

Updated: 3 hours ago

By Staci-lee Sherwood



I bet you didn’t know that Purple Martins were in trouble and in need of our help to save them from extinction.  Like most people, I had no idea about their lifecycle and how it centered on successful interactions with humans.  Despite being around for millions of years, over time things drastically changed when they went from wild nesters to those that are dependent on humans for their very survival.

 


I had the pleasure of meeting with Shelly Rozenberg who’s been working tirelessly at saving these birds for many years as the Purple Martin Conservation Coordinator for Audubon Everglades in Florida.   The program involves setting up nesting houses, monitoring them when they arrive for breeding season and keeping a record of how many eggs are laid, how many chicks hatch, fledge or die.  All this data helps to show whether a population is declining, increasing or stable.  The data is collected without disturbing the birds by opening a small window on the side to look inside.



A little bird history

Thousands of years ago indigenous people observed how Purple Martins consumed many insects that damaged their crops.  They began to hollow out gourds and put them out hoping to attract them.  No one knows when exactly this practice started or how long it took for the birds to switch from wild nesters to those that nest in manmade habitats.  Over the years total reliance on humans became entwined with where they nested. While this practice benefitted farmers who now had a natural pest remover, it took away the birds ability to find habitat on their own.  As secondary cavity nesters they don’t dig out their own nest, instead they reuse abandoned cavities made by woodpeckers, squirrels or owls.  They also return to the same nesting site every year.



Purple Martins are the largest of the Swallows in North America.  Weighing less than 2 ounces and measuring just under 8 inches, they are a diminutive bird with many predators.  These little birds are amazing acrobats as they fly and swoop in the air while catching flying insects.  Mortality rate for chicks their first year runs about 25% which is high for a bird whose lifespan is between 5 – 7 years.  At just 11 months they are old enough to breed.  Born in the U.S. but wintering in Brazil  they  travel  thousands  of miles where their food is more available because insects don’t fly in cold weather so they must migrate to warmer temperatures.

 


They consume about 2000 flying insects a day and are one of nature’s best natural pest removers. Their diet consists of dragonflies, butterflies, moths, wasps, termites and bees along with other flying insects.  They are an important part of a healthy and balanced ecosystem.

 


So many threats

Little birds have to fear Owls, Hawks, Eagles and Snakes if they don’t want to be their next meal but many small birds also pose a huge danger.  House Sparrows may be cute but they are not native to the U.S., having been brought here by Europeans, and not only compete for food but will also kill the Purple Martins and destroy the eggs.  Starlings, also brought here from Europe, will do the same.  As if that wasn’t enough trouble, the fledglings have to stir clear of the sub adult or bachelor males who often steal the food, harass the chicks and even try to mate with them.  It’s not easy trying to grow up with so much working against you.



Predators lurk in every corner but they are not the only threat.  Pollution of the water, air and land pose catastrophic threats to all living beings on Earth.  As the air becomes more saturated with pesticides their food source will vanish.  Their habitat is fast disappearing with every new building constructed.  Very little truly clean water remains anywhere on the planet today.  It’s no wonder their population is on the decline.

 


A male works non-stop feeding his chicks after losing his mate.



How the program works

This citizen science program begins with volunteers who starts looking for places that have a water source with enough open space to put up some bird houses.  Home or business owners are educated about the need to help the birds and the value they bring.  Once the houses are placed volunteers watch for the arrival of the birds from wintering in South America.  Weekly checks are done to record how many birds have arrived, how many are nesting, condition of nests, egg and chick counts.  Any disease or deaths are recorded as well.  This provides valuable information to help understand how the population is doing, what the causes for decline are and to help formulate programs to educate the public and increase or stabilize the population.  It will take a village to save this species.

 


Purple Martins check out their new homes put up by Alachua Audubon Society and Four Rivers Audubon   Photo credit: Jacqui Sulek/Audubon Florida  



A specially designed entrance helps keep out non native predatory birds like the Starlings and House Sparrows from entering the nest.



A snake guard can be added to the base of the pole to prevent predation. The movement  of the cylinder can scare away snakes looking for the eggs or chicks.



A nest with 4 eggs


      

The next generation just hatched     



These chicks are almost ready to leave the nest and brave the world on their own




Their fate lies with us

Because of their interdependence on humans they need to nest in manmade dwellings, near a water source away from nearby trees.  Florida has lost nearly 50% of their Purple Martin population in the last 20 years. The birds have learned there are some benefits to living so close to humans, such as finding a mate is easier and less concern about raccoon or fox predation, but it comes with a price.  As development of the last bit of open space continues to explode loss of their habitat and pollution increases. Tragically most homeowners rely on toxic chemicals to control insects instead of letting nature balance itself.  Loss of food due to pesticides means extinction.

 


It’s not all bad anyone can help save them

Despite their population being on the decline there is still time to save them.  If you have the desire to help you can put up habitat specially designed for them.  You don’t need to put out food just let them raise their young in peace and you will be rewarded by their beauty,  their lyrical vocalizations and knowing you are doing something to save them.



Simple things you can do to help save the Purple Martins:


  • Put up habitat for them and place away from trees (near a water source like a stream/lake/river/pond/canal)

  • Never use any pesticides/rodentcides/insecticides

  • Spread the word about the need to help them

  • Contact your local Audubon chapter or click here to find one near you https://www.audubon.org/about/audubon-near-you?state=default

  • Establish a monitoring group in your area

 



These newborns sleep soundly but their survival depends on you.  Please help save these amazing birds before we lose them forever.



Also published on All-creatures on  May 15, 2024


Also published on Spirit of change on May 22, 2024


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2 Comments


McKenna Grace Fisher
McKenna Grace Fisher
May 15

~ Incredibly informative sis ~ More than I could have ever hoped to learn about these precious beings ~ Thank you ~ mgf Vegan for the Animals ~ #veganfortheanimals#thoushaltnotkill

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Staci-lee Sherwood
Staci-lee Sherwood
7 days ago
Replying to

Thanks McKenna I always try to highlight issues that need more attention and this is something most people can help with. For the animals always

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