Purple Martins live in condominium-style nest boxes
Love Purple Martins? Attend the annual Purple Martin Festival!
If you have ever wondered about why some birds are special enough to get their own pole-mounted white houses, there is an extremely interesting story to tell about the purple martins. Hundreds or even thousands of years ago, North America's largest swallow nested in tree cavities, just like many other similar species. Then, a pair nested in a hollow gourd hung up by Native Americans. The gourd offered a larger compartment and better protection from predators, so more pairs chose to nest in these gourds. The people watching this happen would have been interested in having birds around for much the same reason as modern birdwatchers, so more gourds were put up. When European settlers arrived, they also built houses to attract these birds. Eventually, due to the advantages for the purple martins, the population went through a process known as a behavioral tradition shift. Coupled with a loss of natural habitat in trees, purple martins began nesting solely in human-provided structures. Our role has become even more important in recent years as the populations of many bird species, including the swallow family, rapidly decline.
In Camrose, the first purple martin house was most likely put up by local naturalist Frank Farley in the early 1900s. In 2003, the newly created Camrose Wildlife Stewardship Society began the Purple Martin Project which aimed to increase purple martin populations as well as to study the birds. Interest has grown steadily since then and as of this summer we have nearly 100 purple martin houses in the City, hosting 73 pairs of purple martins. With the aid of many dedicated volunteers and the support of the City of Camrose, the CWSS erects new houses and trains purple martin landlords to take care of the nests. If you see someone checking the house, feel free to approach them and they will be happy to show you what's inside! If you are not the designated landlord and do not know what needs to be done for the birds, we ask that you leave the houses alone. Landlord tasks involve weekly nest checks to monitor nest completion, eggs, and the health of chicks, keeping parasites such as blowflies and mites under control, and discouraging invasive competitors from using the houses. These actions are extremely beneficial to the birds and can produce twice as many chicks as an untended house. If you are interested in becoming a landlord, let us know!
The martins overwinter in Brazil and arrive in Alberta in early May. After pairing up, they build distinctive leaf-lined nests for their pure white eggs. Upon hatching, the chicks are featherless and are no larger than an adult's thumb, but grow rapidly on a diet of flying insects to become as large as their parents in only 22 days! At 26 days, they begin to venture out on their first flight, returning home at night as they learn how to fend for themselves. Everyone is sorry to see the martins begin to fly back down south, but we know that they will be back as they will return to the same place, even to the same compartment, where they had a successful brood the summer before.