A fairly unique bird is beginning to make its way back into the Elkhart County area for the summer nesting season.
Purple Martins, a bird in the swallow family, are making their annual pilgrimage up to North America, after spending the North American winter in Brazil where it is the South American summer.
The birds find their way to houses for nesting, like those in the backyard of Merlin Lehman in Middlebury.
Lehman has had a colony of Martins in his backyard for 23 years. Lehman’s colony has around 125 pairs of birds, he said. Lehman became interested in Purple Martins after visiting a relative who has a colony at his home in Ohio.
What makes the bird unique is that, according to Lehman, they are entirely dependent on humans for their nest.
“They depend on us,” Lehman said. “I feel good about being able to help them.”
It’s this helping relationship that makes the human-bird dynamic different for Purple Martin fans.
“They’re wild but we can be out (in the yard) and they’ll be up in their houses, chattering and happy,” Lehman said. “I guess that’s why us Purple Martin guys like them, because they’re always happy.”
The birds prefer houses that can fit their 8-inch length, so houses with large cavities and plastic gourds are the birds’ favorite places, according to Lehman. The houses can be wood, aluminium or plastic, he added.
Lehman says that anyone who wants to attract these birds needs to keep an eye on their houses to keep out evasive species like Starlings and Sparrows. Therefore, the houses should be able to be raised and lowered to be checked once a week.
Lehman built a couple of his own Purple Martin houses after he tried a couple different commercially built houses that did not work. Lehman said that he no longer builds the houses, instead he says that Nature Unlimited in Topeka builds houses that the birds like.
The birds begin arriving around the beginning of April, says Lehman. They will continue to show up until mid-May and by June most of the birds will arrive. They build their nest, lay four to six eggs, incubate the eggs for two weeks and then the birds fledge for two weeks and then, according to Lehman, “they don’t stick around very long. By August they’re on their way back to Brazil.”
The birds thrive in warm weather because they feed exclusively on flying insects, Lehman said. The birds will dive and swoop around grabbing bugs out of the air.
The other thing the birds need to nest, said Lehman, is a wide open yard.
“I always say (my yard) is an airport,” Lehman said. “If they can come in like a 747, very open. If they have to come in like a helicopter, (that’s) not good.”
Lehman suggests that anyone interested in getting Purple Martins should be serious about looking after the birds because houses can cost as much as $400.
“You’re not going to spend that much money to let Starlings and Sparrows nest in there,” he said.