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Blane Klemek column: We can bring back the purple martin

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outdoors Bemidji, 56619
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Beside my office building,

High upon a metal pole;

Sits an apartment house for purple martins,

A bird I scarcely know.

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Indeed, the purple martin is a species of swallow that I've little experience with. While I've been fortunate enough to observe and delight in these animated birds on several occasions throughout my life, I've yet to erect a martin house in my own backyard. I should do so someday.

Recently as I sat working in my office with my window open to allow the fresh, cool springtime air in, I heard an uncommon, yet familiar avian vocalization. I recognized it immediately as a purple martin. And sure enough, as I looked out the window to see what I could see, there sat on top of the martin house a male purple martin displaying and calling to his female companion.

In perusing the Internet to learn more about purple martins, I came across a poem written by an obvious admirer of the species, who remarked about the martin's vocalization and his affections thereof.

Mike Brown writes in "The True Voice Of Spring":

The Daffodils promise sunshine

The Robin's song just barely comes forth

Maple buds swell blood red

As the cold descends from the far frozen north

The Chorus Frogs creak lightly

Still waiting for the good news

The cold silences the Mockingbird

The Bluebird sings the blues

Winter has been so long

The land still dead and brown

The Cardinal starts a loud cheer

But then he turns it right back down

When all of a sudden a Mighty Voice

Exclaims like a trumpet upon High!!

Chur, Chur, Chur, Cheer...weeee

Listen ... The Great Messenger...Oh He has finally arrived!

A God among birds

He commands the icy wind to shift

The land warms in his wake

As he dives, zooms and drifts!

Painting the cloudy sky blue

Like a great artist on the wing

He ends all suffering below

For He is "The True Voice of Spring!"

As soon as springtime warms enough to where insects are fairly abundant, several species of swallows begin showing up throughout Minnesota. In all, six of the nine North American species of swallows migrate to Minnesota to breed and nest. All of them share similar physical characteristics with one another, but each is quite unique in its own right.

But topping the popularity list of Minnesota swallows is the largest of the swallow clan, in addition to the only species of swallow not to have "swallow" as part of their name. The purple martin is that condo-loving, social butterfly of the swallow world. Here's a swallow that has come to rely almost exclusively, interestingly enough, on human-made bird houses for nesting.

Like several other swallow relatives, purple martins are cavity nesters -- that is, they evolved to nest inside holes in trees -- holes commonly excavated by woodpeckers. But perhaps due in part by loss of their preferred nesting habitat (larger trees with suitable tree cavities), these colonial nesting birds somehow adapted to nesting in bird houses.

Oddly, purple martins east of the Rocky Mountains rely almost entirely on "human provided housing," whereas those birds nesting west of the Rockies typically nest in their ancestral ways inside of tree cavities.

Even so, the population of this widespread swallow has declined dramatically over the past 40 to 50 years. It is estimated that purple martin numbers have decreased by as much as 80 percent. From the mid-1960s to late in the last decade, according to data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the purple martin population has declined by as much as 4 percent each year.

And the primary reasons cited for the decline in purple martin abundance? Likely culprits are two non-native species of birds -- the very birds I recently wrote about in a past column -- the house sparrow and European starling. Another possibility that is believed to be contributing to purple martin population losses is that fewer houses are available for the species to nest in.

There was a time across the American countryside when purple martin houses could be found adorning the front yards of farms everywhere throughout purple martin range. It's surmised that with the loss of family farms, so too have been lost the thousands of purple martin houses that once were a mainstay of our agrarian past.

Still, despite the continuance of purple martin population declines, the fondness for this wonderful creature has never diminished. In recent times, public awareness has thankfully increased, purple martin societies have been organized and efforts are under way everywhere to bring purple martins back to historic numbers.

Part of the attempt has much to do with installing purple martin houses in our front yards once again. And if you look around, you will notice this trend. I recently saw, for example, a martin house on a front yard in Lake Park, Minn., that was surrounded by dozens of martins flying about. I've also observed martin houses on the shores of Wolf Lake, east of Bemidji, overflowing with purple martins.

The purple martin, a bird of beauty and grace, cannot help but delight each and every one of us. Perhaps with our helping hands and our front yards, we will begin to see and hear more of these special birds as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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