Adventures of a Purple Martin
Updated: Dec 13, 2020
A beautiful male purple martin (Progne subis) came into my care on May 3rd of this year. He was found injured at a colony in Lockport, New York by a caring purple martin landlord. The martin had a green band on his left leg (A095), and a silver band on his right leg (2331-95594). Upon further investigation, it was found that he and 5 siblings hatched in the summer of 2012 at a colony close to Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. Biologists banded them on June 27 2012, making this martin almost 7 years old!
Purple martins are North America's largest swallow. Like all swallows, they are aerial insectivores and perform precise acrobatic maneuvers in the sky to catch bugs while in flight. Insects are their only food source. When our temperatures become too cold to support their flying food, they must migrate to warmer wintering grounds.
Martins prepare for migration after all their young have fledged. They will leave our area in late August to early September. We have learned about the migration of purple martins by tracking 2 female martins as they flew from Erie, Pennsylvania to Brazil and back. These girls carried "geolocators" with them like a backpack, and the information that was collected from these tracking devices is amazing!
· The round trip to Brazil and back is approximately 8000 miles.
· Martins have an estimated flight speed of up to 40 miles per hour.
· In the first part of their journey, they traveled 1500 miles in just 5 days, including a 500 mile non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico.
While in Brazil, purple martins spend their days hunting over savannahs, agricultural fields and sometimes even rainforests. At night they congregate in large roosts, frequently in towns or cities. They stay in South America until early April when they begin the long journey back to their breeding colonies.
In eastern North America, purple martins breed almost exclusively in man-made birdhouses and gourds, and martin "landlords" must maintain these houses and monitor the families within them to help ensure that the purple martins are successful with raising their young. The martin parents have an even bigger job: they spend the breeding season creating the perfect nursery, and then incubating and feeding their offspring. Young purple martins are fed from dawn to dusk. Both parents need to help to keep up with the ravenous appetites of the nestlings (and somehow need to manage to feed themselves too!) At peak growth, when the nestlings need the most nutrition, deliveries of food can be as frequent as 13 times every hour! This incredible development from egg to fully feathered bird takes only 4 weeks. At this point, the nestlings fledge and learn to fly. They need to become expert flyers quickly because there is not much time before they need to make the long journey to Brazil themselves.
Unfortunately, purple martins face many threats. Populations of aerial insectivores (nighthawks, nightjars, swifts and swallows) are all declining, with the long-distance migrants being hit the worst. This involves multiple factors, but one big problem is that there is just not enough food. The insecticides used in our yards and on our crops kill the flying insects directly and also seep through the soil and into the water, poisoning the wetlands that insects need to develop. But we can help: if we don't use lawn chemicals and we choose to eat only organic foods, we can make a big difference.
As mentioned earlier, purple martins in our area only nest in houses and gourds that are created and managed by purple martin landlords. Without the care and dedication of these special humans, breeding success of martins would be significantly decreased. To learn more about purple martins and how to become a landlord, visit the New York State Purple Martin Project at: friendsofiroquoisnwr.org/purplemartins
Information can also be found at purplemartin.org
Back to the 7 year old banded purple martin: unfortunately, he got in trouble and was injured beyond repair. But he had an amazing life! Just think of it! He made his first flight down to Brazil when just a youngster, not knowing where he was going, but following his instinct and other martins that knew the way, using all his strength and energy to make that incredible flight. He was able to explore a new land with incredible biodiversity and beauty. Then the urge to start a family of his own led him back to where he came from. It was likely he fathered a clutch of eggs each year from 2013 to 2018, possibly sending another 30 martins out into the world. Each year he made that long journey to Brazil and back, totaling 56,000 miles in just migration travel alone! The rest of the story only he knew, but he must have had adventures we cannot even imagine.
Rest in peace, my friend.
# purple martin, # swallow, # wildlife rehabilitation