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BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Keep an eye out for the return of purple martins this spring

Minnesota’s purple martins are especially drawn to the state not only because of the thousands of purple martin houses that are available, but because of water, open countryside, and, of course, insects.

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Purple martins flutter around their martin house near the Bemidji State campus on Lake Bemidji in June 2021.
Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer

About four years ago I built my purple martin house from a kit I ordered from an online company that specializes in wild bird supplies.

The attractive looking green and white, all-aluminum two-story house has room for 12 pairs of martins, six holes on each side with each nesting apartment neatly separated from the others. Sturdy and likely very long-lasting, I was excited to erect the house outdoors and wait for occupancy.

Also purchased from the company was an expensive, telescoping 15-foot metal pole. I dug a hole in the ground not far from Assawa Lake, filled the hole with cement, and pushed the pole into the center of the hole.

Securing the pole with twine string and staking the lengths of twine to the ground, I waited a few days for the cement to set before mounting the martin house to the pole.

My 4-year-old grandson, Lincoln, happened to be staying with me on that early spring day of 2018, the day I secured the martin house onto the pole and lifted the telescoping pole to its full height.

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Afterwards, we untied the twine string, pulled the stakes and admired our work while we excitedly talked about the day purple martins would discover the empty apartment and begin building nests inside of it to raise their babies.

Unfortunately, however, that special day has yet to arrive.

There was a time across the North American countryside when purple martin houses were commonplace on the front yards of farms everywhere throughout purple martin range. It’s believed that with the loss of family farms, so, too, has the thousands of purple martin houses that were once relied on by nesting martins.

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, 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 to nest inside of.

Minnesota’s purple martins are especially drawn to the state not only because of the thousands of purple martin houses that are available, but because of water, open countryside, and, of course, 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.

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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.

This spring, I’ll be pulling out all the stops in my hopeful quest and anticipation of attracting nesting purple martins to my empty martin abode. The company that I purchased the house and pole from also sent me a booklet about purple martins, two plastic purple martin decoys, and a compact disc of martin vocalizations.

The CD, titled "morning vocalizations," is meant to be played from a CD player or other device such as a game caller. When played aloud, the martin chatter broadcast near a martin house and coupled with the decoys, are supposedly effective in attracting purple martins to an area.

And once the birds’ curiosity has lured them to a site and a vacant martin dwelling is discovered by scouts or pairs of martins, the theory goes that they might stick around and begin nesting soon after. Let’s hope so.

Beautiful purple martins, swallows they are, and obligated to nest boxes and other artificial structures, migrate to Minnesota every spring. Large nesting colonies occur at many places here in the Northland.

As their colonies grow, some birds are bound to search and discover nearby vacant apartments—maybe yours, maybe mine—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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Related Topics: BLANE KLEMEKNORTHLAND OUTDOORSOUTDOORS RECREATION
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