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BLANE KLEMEK COLUMN: ‘Purple martin mania’ has returned to Minnesota

Brian Hiller from the Biology Department at Bemidji State University researches Purple Martins that nest near campus. Submitted photo.

I’m pleased to report that purple martins seem to be faring well in parts of Mille Lacs County, particularly on the shores of Mille Lacs Lake itself and throughout the countryside of Meeker, Todd, Douglas and Grant counties, too.    

On a recent trip to the second largest inland body of water in Minnesota, Mille Lacs Lake, I was surprised to see along the south shore near the tiny lake-town of Wahkon that many lakeshore owners have purple martin houses erected on their lawns. Some homeowners have also strung giant white gourds below and alongside their martin houses as well. Like giant bees buzzing around beds of flowers, purple martins could be seen swarming the bird houses and gourds, no doubt busily capturing flying insects and feeding hungry little martin mouths.

Indeed, while my friend and I fished for smallmouth bass above rocky reefs far out onto the lake, purple martins, which are the largest of all the swallows, were flying gracefully overhead snapping from the air mayflies that were also flying about. Both fish and bird were happily gorging themselves on another of the lake’s bountiful gifts.

As I traveled across the state from Mille Lacs Lake to the city of Glenwood on beautiful state Highways 27 and 28, I was also delighted to see freshly painted and what looked like relatively new purple martin houses dotting the front yards of rural homes and farmsteads along the way, too. And every single martin house that I observed was actively occupied by martins. It was apparent to me that “purple martin mania” is catching on in some parts of Minnesota once again.

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, has the thousands of purple martin houses that once were a mainstay of our agrarian past.  

However, perhaps not unlike efforts designed to attract more wood ducks and eastern bluebirds when people and conservation organizations dedicated to enhancing habitat and assisting the comeback of these two species of wild birds began constructing and installing artificial nest boxes in prime habitat everywhere, so, too, were the desires of people interested in attracting and assisting purple martins. For wood ducks and bluebirds, such efforts paid off and has resulted in helping to restore some local populations and possibly halting national declines.  

Yet, unlike wood ducks and bluebirds, which don’t necessarily need artificial nest boxes to nest in (wood ducks and bluebirds also use cavities found in trees, too), purple martins are dependent on artificial nest boxes, at least the eastern variety of purple martins that we enjoy here in Minnesota. The only population of purple martins that are known to utilize secondary cavities -- those naturally occurring cavities or cavities excavated by other animals, such as woodpecker holes -- are found in the Pacific Northwest. Otherwise, all other populations of purple martins have undergone a complete behavioral shift over the past hundreds of years because of humankind’s yearning to attract purple martins by providing the beautiful birds structures in which to nest.

Minnesota’s martins are especially drawn to the state because of not only the thousands of purple martin houses that have been made available, but because of water, open countryside, and, of course, insects. Lots of insects. In fact it was because of insects that people began building structures or placing other objects designed to attract purple martins in the first place. It certainly was the case that more martins would mean fewer biting insects, or at least that was the hope! So, too, was the case that more martins was simply a joy to observe and something to look forward to each spring and summer. And thus, more martin dwellings were placed to attract even more martins.

On purple martins, and like many other birds I so enjoy to seek John J. Audubon’s input on, Mr. Audubon wrote about purple martin’s penchant for artificial structures in his heralded book “Birds of America”:

“I had a large and commodious box built and fixed on a pole, for the reception of Martins, in an enclosure near my house, where for some years several pairs had reared their young. One winter I also put up several small boxes, with a view to invite Blue-birds to build nests in them. The Martins arrived in the spring, and imagining these smaller apartments more agreeable than their own mansion, took possession of them, after forcing the lovely Blue-birds from their abode. I witnessed the different conflicts, and observed that one of the Blue-birds was possessed of as much courage as his antagonist, for it was only in consequence of the more powerful blows of the Martin, that he gave up his house, in which a nest was nearly finished, and he continued on all occasions to annoy the usurper as much as lay in his power. The Martin shewed his head at the entrance, and merely retorted with accents of exultation and insult. I thought fit to interfere, mounted the tree on the trunk of which the Blue-bird's box was fastened, caught the Martin, and clipped his tail with scissors, in the hope that such mortifying punishment might prove effectual in inducing him to remove to his own tenement. No such thing; for no sooner had I launched him into the air, than he at once rushed back to the box. I again caught him, and clipped the tip of each wing in such a manner that he still could fly sufficiently well to procure food, and once more set him at liberty.”

Audubon was known of course to procure birds for study and as subjects for his artwork by capturing and killing them. And in the instance above, he ended up becoming so angry at the individual martin insistent on occupying the bluebird house, that he killed it! Shame on John.

For sure, purple martins, the beautiful swallows obligated to nest boxes and other structures built or placed by human hands, are active and doing well in the lake country and farmland of Minnesota 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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