Purple Martins in America: Extraordinary Birds In Need Of Habitat

Purple Martins have become urban dwellers over the past century. These birds find their food in open areas like beaver ponds, meadows, and fields that are scattered over the terrain. In the past, they built their nests along the edges of streams and wooded areas, but now prefer the nest boxes that humans supply them in the eastern part of the US. Out west, they still use the holes left by woodpeckers in the forests of the Pacific lowlands and mountainous regions or move into holes left in cacti in the drier regions of the Southwest.

martin scanning skies
martin scanning skies

The menu of this extraordinary bird species is diverse. They feed on insect types as diverse as mayflies, grasshoppers, beetles, and leafhoppers. An insectivore with a big appetite, Purple Martins have been seen hunting their prey at elevations 500 or more feet above the ground. Skilled hunters, they turn rapidly high in the sky when they spot their prey during the long daylight hours of summer. They are solitary hunters, although occasionally they do go out in pairs.

A conventional purple martin bird house is best described as “apartment style”. Purple martin gourds are the other preferred nesting site. These are primarily provided by humans at this points. A nesting pair will visit several cubby holes before selecting the one in which they will rear their young. Some people choose to put up only a single birdhouse with eight to ten compartments for their avian guests, which leaves individual pairs with more territory. However, when many large houses are placed in a single area, the birds naturally reduce the size of the territory that they will defend once they lay their eggs. By the time the eggs are laid, most martins will only defend their own compartment.

While most Purple Martins are paired with one male and one female per nest, it is not unusual for two or more females to share the same male mate. Each female does have her own compartment within the nesting boxes. However, females do mate with other males besides the one with which they are paired. During the mating seasons, there are occasional physical fights between competing birds.

The vast majority of this bird species breeds within the United States. They do migrate to South America during the winter months. While the species is not in danger, their numbers are declining at a relatively low rate. This decline has been counteracted by the nesting sites built in suburban and urban areas. In fact, almost all nesting is now done within these homes provided by humans in the eastern part of the country.

The single greatest cause of death is cold weather. Because insect activity drops off precipitously as the temperatures plummet, the timing for migration is vital for their survival. Cold snaps lasting longer than four or five days during the warm weather months significantly impact the population. They are rarely seen on the ground when the insect population is dense.

In the west, the removal of dead trees by the logging industry has had a direct and negative impact on their ability to breed. In addition, species such as the House Sparrow and the introduced European Starlings will move into Purple Martin breeding nests, destroy the eggs or kill the nestlings, and take over the compartments for their own use. A movement by Brazil’s government to reduce the use of insecticides is aiding conservation efforts.

Consider placing a martin house in your backyard to help this species thrive. You’ll get a chance to watch them as they compete for mates and territory. Best of all, you’ll help the next generation to get their start in the world.

How to Provide Nest Boxes for Bluebirds

Bluebird feeding babies
Bluebird feeding babies

Eastern Bluebirds are one of the most beautiful songbirds found in North America, but their numbers have declined considerably during the nineteenth century. This may be partly due to the fact that residential areas have slowly replaced forested areas, so appropriate nesting sites are more difficult for them to find.

Bluebirds are somewhat unique in that they do not build nests in trees like many other birds, and they are also unable to create a nesting cavity that is acceptable to them. Old forests offer the best nesting sites for the birds since a hollow space in a tree or a cavity created by woodpeckers are the most agreeable to them. Bluebirds are more likely to be successful in their search for a nesting site in forests that have been standing many years, but many of these older forests are gone now.

Since bird lovers always enjoy having a bluebird family on or near their property, providing nest boxes for them has gotten very popular. Putting up a couple bluebird nest boxes does not take a lot of talent, nor do they cost very much. Most people are able to build a simple nest box with just a few scraps of lumber.

Nesting boxes for bluebirds do not need to be large; an interior space of 8″ x 8″ is probably more than sufficient for a nest. The box should be about 10 inches tall in the back with a hinged roof that slants downward to the front. The entry hole should be located in the top half of the front section, and a small dowel a few inches long placed beneath it for a perch. The box should be placed several feet high on a post, but should not be hung on a tree trunk. In years past it was common to see several nest boxes placed at regular intervals on the wooden posts supporting a fence line.

Bluebird lovers who install nest boxes on their property enjoy checking on the inhabitants once the boxes are being used. It is important to avoid interfering with the birds while they choose a box and go about the business of building their nest. Once the birds are no longer bringing in nesting material, the female will lay her eggs and begin incubating them. Any monitoring of the nest should take place early in the morning and last only a minute or less. It is important to avoid attracting raccoons and other curious critters to the nest through unusual activity or by leaving a scent trail.

Some very knowledgeable bird lovers are able to gently handle chicks within the first 10 to 12 days. The parent birds will not abandon their family because of human scent, but just looking at the babies briefly is probably a better idea. Nest checks should be discontinued once the chicks are 12 days old since they may become frightened and attempt to fly out of the box. The box should be checked only from a distance until the young birds fly, and it can be exciting to see their first flight.

Some bluebird couples raise two families during the summer, so the box should be emptied and cleaned once the first brood is grown and gone. Most bluebird boxes also have a hinged floor so all the old nesting material and droppings can be completely cleaned out. It is convenient to attach the box in such a way that it can be easily removed from the post for cleaning. Scrub the inside with a weak bleach/water solution. Allow the wood to dry completely, and store it inside before mounting again the following spring.

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Picking The Best Bird Feeder For Your Home

Bird feeding has suddenly become a big business, and it caters to more than just a few die-hard birdwatchers. The latest estimates indicate that there are more than 50 million adults in North America who feed birds on a regular basis. This has led to the rise of bird feeding industry that’s worth more than three billion dollars. On the one hand, it’s good to know you’re not alone in wanting to feed your birds. On the other hand, the arrival of hundreds or thousands of different feeders on the market makes it hard to zero in on the best bird feeder for you to buy!

Feeder Design Depends On Your Feed Choice

The many different feeders available today break down into four broad categories based on the type of feed they supply. The most common are seed feeders, which dispense sunflower seeds, millet, corn, and other popular dry bird foods. These feeders are generally cylindrical and they can be hung from trees or stands or supported on poles.

“Trough” or “tray” feeders are designed to spread out larger feed for birds to land on directly. These are great if you want to present your avian visitors with fruits, berries, or other types of feed that wouldn’t last long in a cylindrical feeder.

example of platform style feeder
example of platform style feeder

Nectar feeders are specialized for the needs of hummingbirds. You load them with very sweet liquid feed that hummingbirds love. Most nectar feeders are bright red (hummingbirds are attracted to the color) and come with some features to defeat pests (see below).

The last type of feeder is designed to use suet feed. Suet feed comes in solid blocks and it has a high fat content. Suet feeders are usually very simple, consisting of little more than an open cage for the feed and a few perches. You can buy suet from your local wild bird store or even make your own at home. Suet feeders are particularly useful during the winter months when birds’ energy needs are high and natural foods are scarce.

Feeder Structure And Features

Certain bird feeder features are more desirable than others no matter what form the feeder takes. Clear plastic is overwhelmingly common for feed supply tanks (e.g. the cylindrical body of seed feeders). This material serves its purpose very well. When it comes to the body and fittings of a feeder, though, plastic is a little bit flimsy for extended use. You should look for feeders with more robust metal parts that will last longer. (The exception to this rule is the nectar feeder; these are invariably made out of plastic.)

The single biggest threat to a bird feeder once you load it and set it up is moisture. Many commercial feeder designs include a number of features to keep your feed dry, but these aren’t always effective. You may need to add aftermarket parts (or even jury-rig your own!) to ensure that the feed in your feeder doesn’t get wet. This is particularly important with trough feeders, where your feed is almost completely exposed to the elements.

Common Feeding Concerns

Besides the moisture issues noted above, the most important factor to keep in mind with your bird feeder is that it needs to be kept clean. This isn’t just a matter of making it look nice and neat; dirty bird feeders can spread avian diseases and harm the very critters you’re trying to attract!

Before you commit to buying any given bird feeder, ask yourself how easy or hard it will be to clean. Highly decorated feeders can look very beautiful on a store shelf, but they can be difficult to clean. This is also another area where metal parts score over plastic ones. Metal surfaces are extremely easy to wipe clean.

You also need to carefully consider where you’re going to set up your feeder. Bear in mind that hitting windows is a serious concern for wild birds, so your feeder should be either very close (within three feet) to a window or very far away (over 30 feet). At distances in between these limits, birds are traveling fast enough to injure themselves if they mistakenly fly into your window.

Dealing With Pests

One of the trickiest parts of feeding birds is preventing the rest of the wide world from showing up at the buffet line. Some feeders actually come with built-in design features to help. Some large pole-mounted feeders come with an integral ‘squirrel baffle’ to prevent climbing. (These baffles are also available on their own for use with other feeders.) Many nectar feeders have a built-in ‘ant moat’ to keep insects away from the nectar within.

No matter what kind of birds you want to feed, what sort of food you intend to use, or how much money you have to spend, there’s a great bird feeder waiting for you out there. All you need to do is invest a little thought into your feeder choice, and you’ll be attracting some brilliant avian friends in no time!

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