April 1st is April Fool’s Day. Fools that we are, we target that date to be back north after our winter in glorious Florida. April in Florida is spectacular: bright sunny days; spring in full flower; exciting bird migration just underway; summer hurricanes still far out in the Atlantic off the African coast; and Florida just about as good as it gets. April in Pennsylvania is dreariness personified: gray, gloomy skies often punctuated with cold rain; barren trees and brown, sometimes snow covered lawns and fields; flowers and tomatoes still dreams under the gardener’s grow-lights; and the excitement of the bird migration still six weeks away. So what’s wrong with us? We are Purple Martin landlords in Pennsylvania.
While Purple Martins arrive back at their nesting sites in Florida in January, (we have recorded their arrival at our condo complex in Fort Pierce as early January 15, and as late as January 29) and are well into their breeding cycle by late March when we head north, they don’t typically arrive at our Pennsylvania farm until about April 10 to 15. So, we have about ten days to get everything ready for them.
Except this year 10 of them showed up on April 2, just two days after we got home. They screamed and hollered at us from the perches above the empty gourd racks, and continued to scold while we hurriedly mounted the gourds into place. They immediately investigated the gourds even while we were cranking the racks to the top of the pole. No question about it: That sex urge is a powerful thing.
Purple Martins probably nested in cavities in trees at one time, but now they are almost completely reliant on man-made housing for their nesting needs. American Indians hosted them in gourds before Columbus opened the immigrant flood-gates, and in our experience, Martins still much prefer the natural gourds to the plastic imitation gourds or the commercial wooden or aluminum houses commonly available, although many other Martin lovers have been completely successful with each of the alternatives.
We have a total of 91 gourds available in our colony. (Purple Martins are “colonial” nesters; when I first started birding and read about “colonial” nesters, I thought that referred to birds that were here at the time of the 13 colonies, not being aware of the fact that some species like to nest close together in colonies.) 74 of our gourds had nests with a total of 251 young, most of which have fledged, although there are a couple of pairs still feeding what we suspect may have been second broods. It was truly exhilarating at the peak of the season to have over 300 adult and young birds (above) coming and going all day long to the gourd racks. As I write this in early August, most of the Martins have left for their Brazilian Amazon wintering grounds.
When you think about that long flight ahead of them, take note of the long pointed wings and the large wing to body ratio that is depicted in the photo of the flying bird. Also, the photo of the male Purple Martin propositioning the female on the aluminum house, was taken at High Point in Fort Pierce, well before April 1st, and undoubtedly that female was fooled into the whole baby raising process by that lascivious Lothario, well before we fools headed north for April Fool’s Day. (9/26/2012)
(Click photos for larger versions)