Purple martins right at home in Lewisville

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The first scout flew in March 5. Wade and Connie Beauchamp heard it chattering outside and knew their purple martin friends were finding their way back from Brazil yet again. From Brazil to Lewisville – direct flight. For 20 years, the Beauchamps have welcomed purple martins to nest outside their home on Franklin Road in Lewisville. The single pair of birds that first used their gourds has multiplied into 30 to 35 pairs. There may be even more this summer. They have 48 gourds erected on two large poles — cleaned and ready for occupancy. Hotel Beauchamp.
“The older birds, males, normally come in first. Then the females, then the younger birds from last year. Each day you will see a few more,” Connie said. Some fly in as late as May. “In the summer time when they are coming in, it’s a lot of birds,” Wade said. “We saw the first one last week. There are three out there right now.” On Thursday last week, there were six arrivals.
Purple martins are people-loving birds. They nest close to residences, and they return to the same nests year after year as long as they are welcomed. At the Beauchamp home, they are welcomed indeed. Why not? Purple martins are voracious insect eaters, scooping them up on the fly.
“This is probably my favorite hobby,” Connie said. “When I hear the first sound around the end of February or the first couple weeks of March, I run outside to see them.” Each pair has three to six baby birds. The babies also return to their home a year later. The Beauchamp birds find water at the nearby Shallowford Lakes — drinking on the fly as they skim across the water. The Beauchamps enjoy the birds chatter and company. “It tickles you to death to hear them first come in spring,” Wade said.
Being a landlord for purple martins has its challenges — especially from black snakes and hawks and starlings.Skillful black snakes have crawled up the 20-foot poles to get inside the gourds and feast on the babies. The Beauchamps had to take down the gourd to get the snake out. They have installed guards in an attempt to block the snakes. Starlings already this spring have tried to move into the gourds and drive away the martins. “We have been having problems with them,” Connie said.
But it was a predator hawk that brought Connie to tears years back. The hawk stalked the martins daily. “He would sit in a tree and wait for them to come out,” Connie said. She watched the hawk devour about 40 of her martins.
“I cried. I didn’t know what to do. It makes you sick. Hawks are going to eat birds, and they are going to go after purple martins.” She does what she can to protect her brood. “We go all out to try to protect them,” she said. She shoos away the starlings while the martins are comfortable with her presence.
The purple martins get a lot of her attention. “You feel special if you have them. So many people try and can’t get them,” she said.
“I have been called the Bird Lady of Lewisville.”Exciting For Birders In the birding world, few species generate more excitement than does the Purple Martin, a swallow that is arriving now in the Carolinas, with reports of “scouts” logged almost daily on a website devoted to purple martin health.
Purple martins, the largest of the swallows in North America, are totally dependent on man-made housing east of the Rockies and faithfully return to the same locations each year, so it’s understandable that human “landlords” anxiously await the return of “their” birds from wintering grounds in South America.
Purple martins begin to trickle into southern South Carolina in early February and are watched by martin enthusiasts throughout the breeding range in the eastern United States and in Canada. The first wave consists of “adult” martins – those two or more years old, with adult males sporting full dark-purple color. Females are a bit drab, with a gray breast. One-year-old martins – called “subadults” — arrive 6 to 8 weeks later than the older birds. These younger birds sometimes are more easily attracted to new housing locations. The term “scout” is a misnomer. These are simply experienced birds that are eager to reclaim their housing.
Purple martins prefer to nest in colonies in gourds hung from large racks and in multi-compartment birdhouses. A traditional way to hang gourds in the South is from a single line between two poles, much like a clothesline. The Beauchamps got their introduction to martins from Wade’s uncle Paul. The first year, they put up a house and had no luck. Then they tried gourds and attracted martins right away.
“Up north, they seem to like the houses. Here, gourds seem to work better,” Wade said.Purple martin colonies sometimes can be found in parks and public places, including a colony on the grounds of Biltmore Estate outside of Asheville.
Purple martins feed on the wing – taking insects from the air – and early arrivals sometimes face the prospect of starvation when cold snaps clear the air of insects. Fortunately for the martins, newer techniques of supplemental feeding of insects have been developed.
Landlords can provide live mealworms, or crickets that have been frozen and then thawed, and even bits of scrambled eggs — the food placed on high platforms, in nesting compartments or flung into the air with plastic spoons or slingshots. In late summer, purple martins gather in massive roosts in preparation for fall migration. One of the largest in North America is at Manns Harbor, North Carolina, on the outer banks, where an estimated 100,000 birds – arriving from hundreds of miles away – roost under Umstead Bridge. The Coastal Carolina Purple Martin Society seeks to protect the site and educate the public about its significance.
Another massive roost forms in Lake Murray, S.C., on a small island. Roost viewing tours are provided at sunset beginning in late July aboard the Spirit of Lake Murray yacht service. Unlike many other bird species, purple martin populations overall in North America are holding steady — including North and South Carolina — based on long-term data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Martins can credit their good fortune to devoted men and women who erect and maintain housing.
There are areas of sharp decline nationally, especially in some northern states, and in urban sprawl areas where people often lack adequate open space to erect housing – martins prefer open sites.But even in cities, martins gladly colonize housing in open parks or other public places. The species seems to prefer nesting close to human activity – perhaps because there are fewer predators.
A generation ago, many people erected purple martin houses in the belief that these birds consumed mosquitoes, but according to the PMCA martins do not specialize. A martin’s diet is diverse and includes many kinds of insects from leafhoppers, flies and beetles to dragonflies, bees, wasps and grasshoppers.
Despite relative abundance of purple martins in the Carolinas, many people try for years to attract them without success, or their colonies disappear. Hobbyists may be unaware that problems such as competition from invasive non-native birds — European starlings and house sparrows — or predation caused abandonment.
While generations of Americans have hosted purple martins – the custom adopted from Native Americans who hung out nesting gourds – specific techniques to help a colony thrive emerged in the past decade, based on research conducted by the PMCA and landlords in the field. Among innovations are deeper compartments to protect nestlings from rain and aerial predators such as owls, specially-shaped entrance holes designed to admit martins while restricting starlings – and unique pole guards to thwart climbing predators: rat snakes and raccoons. Because purple martins are birds of the open sky — catching insects on the fly — the PMCA’s number one tip: place housing in the most open space available, but where the colony can be enjoyed and monitored.
More information about purple martins can be obtained from the Purple Martin Conservation Association – which is focused on aiding martins and landlords — including an information and supplies booklet, with advice on attracting and managing a colony, and data sheets to participate in a “citizen science” program called Project Martin Watch, a national effort in which participants monitor nests and mail information to the PMCA at season’s end.