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Purple martins rely on humans to provide them with ‘public housing’
Monday, April 8, 2013
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By Jennifer Kotila
Staff Writer

“[Purple martins] like public housing, what can I say?” said Tom Lyke, who has a cabin on Lake Washington and has been providing homes for the acrobatic birds since he became interested in them at the Minnesota Martinfest in Buffalo Lake in 2005.

“This is so much fun. [Purple martins] keep me entertained sitting on the deck until about mid-July, then they leave and it’s totally quiet,” Lyke added.

Purple martins, the largest member of the swallow family, measuring about 7.5 inches long and weighing approximately 1.9 ounces, spend their non-breeding season in Brazil, migrate to North America, and arrive in Minnesota about mid-April.

“East of the Rockies, they only nest in the housing provided – it’s up to us to provide them homes,” Lyke noted.

Owning and taking care of purple martin houses, or apartments, takes some effort on the part of the “landlord,” or owner of the house, if one wants to start a successful colony.

Lyke became the landlord of his first purple martin house in 2006. It attracted a couple that had five babies that year.

By 2008, he had three homes, and has had four houses since 2009. In 2011, his houses produced 130 fledglings, and last year, 150.

“Still a bit disappointing,” said Lyke, who has fledged more than 200 birds in past years. He currently has 50 nest cavities in his apartment complexes.

“I am hoping that maybe the birds didn’t like the new housing,” he continued, noting he switched out two six-unit houses for eight-unit houses last year. “If that is the case, this year’s hatch should be better if last year’s hatch returns.”

The purple martin has been on the decline in Minnesota, dropping 5.4 percent per year between 2000 and 2010, according to the US Department of Interior’s bird breeding survey.

The decline is more precipitous when looking at statistics going back to the 1960s, which show a decline of more than 85 percent in Minnesota’s purple martin breeding population, according to the Purple Martin Conservation Association (PMCA).

Currently, efforts are being made to list the purple martin as a species of special concern through the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which will allow funding to be made available for the conservation of purple martins in Minnesota.

New landlords are being recruited yearly by groups such as the PMCA, the Minnesota Purple Martin Working Group, East Central Minnesota Purple Martin Recovery, and Audubon Minnesota.

The groups work with landlords to establish colonies in Minnesota, and help existing landlords improve management of their colonies, according to PMCA.

Lyke shared information about his experience with purple martin houses, and what it takes to be a successful purple martin landlord, last spring with the Lake Washington Improvement Association.

“We have a wonderful habitat for purple martins here,” Lyke said. “Those that have houses – great; those that don’t – it’s time to get involved.”

Providing housing for purple martins

Purple martin houses are mounted 12 to 20 feet in the air, and should have the ability to be raised or lowered, Lyke said.

Housing should have features that keep predation by owls, raccoons, and snakes to a minimum, he added.

One of the only things Lyke said he cannot control are hawks, which there are a lot of near Lake Washington, he noted.

The nest boxes of purple martin houses should be 6-by-12 inches, he added. They can be shorter, but a deeper nest box helps keep nestlings safe from predators.

He noted purple martin houses can be constructed by the landlord, or ordered already assembled.

Houses should be mounted in an open area, at least 60 feet in diameter, Lyke noted.

Because there is a lot to learn about purple martins in order to establish a successful colony, many who are beginning their first purple martin colony have a mentor.

Lyke noted his mentor is Ron Seekamp, a retired Honeywell engineer.

“[Purple martins] are very social birds, and you want to be around them so you can handle them and not spook them,” Lyke said.

Nestlings can be handled and put back in the nest. “But don’t mess with them too much right before they start to fly, or they will try to jump out and get hurt,” Lyke said.

Purple martins are insectivores, eating flying insects while in flight, and Lyke noted the staple of his tenants’ diet are dragonflies.

Lyke keeps track of how many nests he has, the eggs that are produced, the nestlings that hatch, and the fledglings that learn to fly and eventually migrate.

He submits all this information to the Purple Martin Conservation Association.

For more information about purple martins, or how to start a purple martin housing complex, click on the link to the Purple Martin Conservation Association at the Enterprise Dispatch website under featured links.

“So far, the weather has not been the greatest (this year), so I haven’t put the houses up,” Lyke said. “I hope the weather improves soon.”

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