Patience: I’m not good at it. The hobby of hosting Purple Martins may require A LOT of it, mainly because it can take years before you actually get martins to nest at your set up. I’m currently in my third year of having Purple Martin racks & no birds.
Purple Martins and birds in general have a natural instinct that we call ‘Site Fidelity.’ It means that if a bird has great nesting success at a particular site, odds are they’ll return to that same site, or same area at least, the following nesting season. Biologists band birds, little tiny metal rings with inscriptions of codes on them placed around the animal’s leg, in order to track them. They do this to track birds’ migrations, dispersal, nesting preferences, and so on. There is a whole citizen scientist network that tracks the sightings of banded birds. People will see a banded bird & report it to a database & scientists will take that observation with the code on it & be able to look up where that particular bird was banded & if it were sighted anywhere else prior. There are a lot of Martin Landlords that get their birds banded in order to see whether they come back every year or if they move out to another colony. I was just recently in Minnesota documenting one landlord’s colony & he told me that one of his birds was reported in Illinois!
That all being said, it can be very challenging to attract new birds to your newly erected housing because these birds return to the colonies they nested at or were born at last year. Some people get lucky & get them in their first year, others have taken up to 10 years. There are certain guidelines that you can follow and set up the ‘perfect’ colony set up, but it may still take years for martins to find you. Martins like to be out in the open & placing your housing from about 40ft from trees & buildings is ideal. You want to avoid being too close to major roads. There are also other bird species that will try to nest inside your housing; make sure they don’t. You can do so, by plugging up your cavities or you can take the nests they make out only if they don’t have eggs in them. I’m currently battling an Eastern Bluebird pair that have tried moving in. Martins are a passive species & can easily be fended off or deterred by other species. I made the mistake of allowing a pair of tree swallows nest in one of my gourds last year. I figured, “no Martins, well I’ll settle for the Swallows…” Then I had an exploratory group of Martins come & investigate my gourds. The Swallows were home & chased off the Martins. Now I hold a disdain for Tree Swallows, which is pretty dumb because Tree Swallows are an incredible species in & of themselves.
Two weeks ago, I had a group of three Martins fly in & check out the gourd rack I have set up at the garden center I work with. I was jumping for joy just watching them fly around the rack; I just made sure that I was out of sight so I didn’t scare them off. There was a Northern Mockingbird that had set up shop on top of the colony & kept warding of the martins from landing. I immediately ran out to the rack & scared the Mockingbird off. The martins hung out for a little while longer, but they never landed. I was pissed. I raced down to my parents’ house about a quarter of a mile away where I have another gourd rack set up & looked to see if these martins traveled down to investigate their housing. Good thing I trust my instincts because they were circling the house when I arrived. Again, they circled the set up & and then took off.
While I was pretty bummed these martins decided not to take up residence at either of the colonies I had provided, I was excited that there were Purple Martins present in my area. I see plenty of housing up all around my area, but I never see any birds. It has me wondering if the breeding population isn’t very abundant. While we get half-a-million birds in the summer months on Bomb Island, I’m left to wonder how many birds we have nesting in our area. I definitely plan on censusing Martin colonies in the Lake Murray area & see the ratio of active to nonactive site we actually have. While I didn’t get Martins for the third straight year, by seeing those 3 birds checking my sites out I’m left rather hopeful that one day they will show up & I’ll get to provide generations of martins to the Lake Murray area for years to come.