By Ian Stewart
For over 4 decades Delaware Nature Society has been providing homes for birds in the form of wooden nest boxes. We currently have over 200 boxes spread across the properties we own or help manage and every year literally hundreds of young Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, Chickadees and House Wrens fledge from our boxes. In some years we are pleasantly surprised to open one of our boxes and find nests of unexpected species like Carolina Wrens, Tufted Titmice or even White-breasted Nuthatches.
This year one of our long-standing volunteers, Steve Cottrell, attempted to attract a new and charismatic species to our nesting list – the Purple Martin! The Purple Martin is the largest swallow in North America, and gets its name because the adult males have purplish-blue feathers over their whole body. Females are purple above but pale below and sub-adult males (those hatched the previous summer) look like females but have purple blotches on their breast. Martins are long-distance migrants that spend the winter way down in the Amazon Basin, especially Brazil, and many people across the country eagerly await the return of these shimmering gems each spring.
Purple Martins are widely but patchily distributed across the eastern United States because they tend to only nest in colonies of artificial houses and won’t be found where these aren’t present. Martins are quite fickle however, and many people erect brand-new houses in what seems like an ideal place (away from trees and preferably near a good source of insects) and yet never attract any martins. Steve was one of those unlucky people and had tried to attract martins to his yard for 5 years without success.
He therefore decided to donate his three Purple Martin towers to us! Each of these towers is equipped with a dozen plastic nesting gourds which are made of white so they stay cool inside and a large screw cap on the side for easy checking. Steve erected one tower at Ashland Nature Center and two at Bucktoe Creek Preserve near Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.
Steve and Delaware Nature Society staff members anxiously watched the towers throughout spring and were thrilled to spot martins perched at all three towers in late April! We had an even bigger thrill last week when we found at least one Purple Martin nest with eggs at both of the Bucktoe towers and then just today, a nest with 5 eggs at Ashland! This is the first confirmed breeding by Purple Martins at both Ashland and Bucktoe!
We will be checking the gourds each week to follow these nesting attempts and see if we are lucky enough to get any more. Later in the summer we hope to band any nestlings produced to try and track their movements during migration and winter and also see if any return to our sites in 2019!
We will also be banding nestling Purple Martins at their long-established colony at DNS’s Abbott’s Mill site in Milford on June 30th and at Flint Woods Preserve in Centerville on July 11th so check out those programs if you want to see these beautiful birds up close.
And if you want to try to attract them to your own property, check out Wild Birds Unlimited in Hockessin and the Purple Martin Conservation Association’s website at https://www.purplemartin.org/. Be lucky!