A sign of warmer times

Though I saw my first purple martin (Progne subis) of 2010 in the middle of February (shortly after The Big Snow™), their return has been delayed this year as opposed to years past.  Too cold, I suspect.  But warmth has arrived in force and the martins have followed it north.

Male purple martin (Progne subis) perched on the side of a martin house (2009_04_11_014916)

Like the barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) and cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) who likewise have returned, these male purple martins are the vanguard for more to come.  Perhaps a dozen of each species are here, give or take.  They’re picking the best nest sites, establishing a pecking order, and filling the sky with the antics and sounds that speak of summer.

Male purple martin (Progne subis) perched in front of his nest entrance (2009_04_04_014187)

Unlike the western population of martins that nests mostly in natural cavities, the eastern population is almost entirely reliant on human-provided housing.  It’s an interesting bit of behavioral adaptation that took only a short time to present itself.  It began with martins nesting in food bowls and gourds and other structures provided by Native Americans.  How that got started is anyone’s guess.  But the birds liked it and the people liked it, so it continued.

Then when Europeans arrived, they fell in love with these majestic, dark creatures—and no doubt appreciated their high-volume insect consumption—so larger and more elaborate houses were built.  The birds liked it and the people liked it, so it continued.

Over the span of 100-200 years, martins east of the Rocky Mountains had transitioned entirely to nesting in man-made housing.  For the majority of the birds, that’s now the only way they’ll nest.

Male purple martin (Progne subis) at his nest entrance (2010_03_13_051197)

Despite rumors to the contrary, the eastern population of purple martins does not use human-provided nest facilities in response to competition from European starlings and house sparrows.  Those birds were introduced long after the martins had come to rely on us for communal nesting structures.

(Their population did collapse after the introduction of starlings and sparrows, hence more intelligent home designs were created that would allow martins to enter the nest sites but would keep the starlings out.  And education was important so those managing martin houses would know to keep sparrows out of the cavities and thus allow the martins a better chance at successful nesting.)

There are half a dozen martin houses within walking distance of my home.  The native Blackland Prairie meadows along the eastern shore of White Rock Lake provide the right habitat and the plethora of insects these birds need to brood and raise young.

[As an aside, I just want to go on record as saying that the nitwit who decided martin housing should be white needs fifty lashes with a wet noodle for the photographic affront that creates.  I realize the color helps reduce heat and therefore is good for the parents and the offspring, but still…  Do you know how difficult it is to properly expose a picture of a nearly black bird when it’s posed against a bright white house?  It ain’t easy!]

11 thoughts on “A sign of warmer times”

  1. Gorgeous pics, Jason! I especially *puffyheart* LOVE the second one, what a wonderful expression/character you captured there! I don’t think I’ve ever seem purple martins before…our home is shared with two nesting pairs of barn swallows every year (one over the front door and one in the back), and they’re great fun (once they remember that they don’t need to divebomb us every time we enter/exit the house *eyeroll*)

    1. Thank you so much, C! I admit I’m rather smitten with that second image as well. He was so curious about me, watching carefully yet unworried. He was so darn cute!

      Your barn swallow story puts a huge smile on my face. I can picture them having to relearn each year that you’re not a threat, but until then, watch out!

    1. Thank you, Jain! As purple is my favorite color, it’s probably terribly obvious how much I adore these birds and can lose myself just watching them.

  2. Ok, I’m adding my adoration of the 2nd photo too! I’ve never paid much attention to Purple Martins, and I’ve never seen one in the wild. Your pictures are the closest look I’ve ever had – that first picture really shows off the purple! I feel for you with the exposure challenge, but looks like you got it right!

    1. When you visit White Rock Lake, Amber, go to the Bath House Cultural Center. There are two martin houses directly up the hill from the entrance (there are others a little left and a little right along the edges of the same meadow). The birds are hard to miss once they all arrive. They fill the air with song and dance. And in autumn before they migrate, hundreds of them congregate at Winfrey Point and spend the day feeding in the fields. Gorgeous!

  3. Great martin shots. They’re such striking birds, and their calls are so distinctive – I call them Purple Martians ’cause they kinda sound that way to me. I’d love to have a box or set of gourds around here, but they’re kinda pricey to buy new, and require better tools (specifically saw) than we own in order to make from scratch.

    1. Too funny, Seabrooke! Purple Martians. That’s such a cute name–and it seems so appropriate. They do have distinctive voices, and their aerial displays and constant sounds make for some of the most predictable and summer-like experiences I can remember from childhood.

  4. Unbelievable shots Jason!

    It’s funny that just before getting to the part of your post talking about the white houses (that would be around the third photo) I was thinking to myself how bright to the eye it is looking at bright white structures like those (it usually hurts my eyes). Then you come up with that hilarious last paragraph. Perfect! But I digress…

    My favorite is the first shot because of the gorgeous purple and the excellent bokeh. The green really compliments the purple.

    I count myself lucky to have seen Purple Martins in the wild inhabiting a huge Oak tree on nearby Lake Britton which is just North of Burney Falls in northern California, where Black Swifts breed in the summer. As you so eloquently stated, the sounds and antics of the Purple Martins are wonderful to behold.

    Thanks for all the information on these beautiful birds and, of course, the marvelous photos!

    1. Oh, Larry, I am so jealous! I’d love to see a martin community nesting “in the wild” so to speak. I realize the houses are just a replacement for natural cavities and the birds are still wild–and I’m quite fascinated with the history of this behavioral change, especially because the birds did it by choice–but I would love the opportunity to see them nesting in a truly natural setting.

      And thank you! I’m glad you liked the photos. Now if only I can fix that bright white problem…

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