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Old 07-06-2009, 11:57 AM   #1
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Default Midwest Purple Martins wiped out

I had a relatively minor incident at my remote purple martin colony a few weeks ago. I “lost” about a dozen fledglings to what I guess was an owl. This colony has been growing as I have added housing each year for the past three seasons. I expected to fledge more than 100 birds for a new site record this year. Early season egg counts and later nest checks looked promising.

I was out of town for a couple of days and decided to do a nest check on my way home, on the 4th. I have five purple martin houses and as I checked each one the number of dead nestlings grew. The total loss in actual dead young counted was 46. Some birds had left the nest and many were scheduled to leave the nest prior to the 4th. These birds are not skilled hunters until they learn the ropes. There wasn’t time this year.

All of the dead birds were about 2 – 3 weeks old. Some birds that were due to fledge were still in their nests. Young birds (less than two weeks old) seemed fine. When I got home I wrote to a friend with a colony about 30 miles away from my remote colony. I wondered how her birds were doing. She replied saying that she had experienced the largest loss of young birds in the 16 years that she has hosted purple martins. They starved. This colony is conditioned to accept “emergency feeding”. We have cold spells before the breeding season in Michigan and many martin “landlords” feed mealworms, crickets and (believe it or not) scrambled eggs during cold spells when martins cannot find the flying insects, which usually make up their entire diet. My friend fed eight dozen scrambled eggs per day during the cold, wet weather. It wasn’t enough.

From Monday, June 29th, through Friday, July 3rd, much of the Midwest experienced cool, wet weather. Checking the national purple martin websites was worse than I could have imagined. The largest loss of young that I have heard of was at Andy Troyer’s colony. Andy is a pioneer in the martin world. He lost 483 young (so far). I have a website devoted to purple martins in Michigan and it appears that every colony in the southern half of the Lower Peninsula has lost more than 50% of their young. Some colonies have been wiped out completely. Most adult birds have survived this ordeal. Northern Ohio colonies experienced similar losses. Colonies in New England, parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ontario were affected. Colonies south of the affected area had already fledged many of their birds and colonies to the north had just seen the beginning of hatching, so were spared.

This weather event probably impacted many more bird species. Many birds are raising young now and many are raised exclusively on insects. Bats may have been hurt by this event, as well.

Because purple martins depend upon man, exclusively, for nesting sites during their breeding season we are very aware of any “problems” that martins experience. While this event is difficult for all of us who host martins, it is something that has probably happened hundreds of times over thousands of years. We have become so close to this species that we now see, first hand, what Mother Nature dishes out from time to time. I hope that she is done for a couple of decades now.

If anyone in the affected areas hosts martins and has not checked their housing, I am asking you to please remove any dead nestlings immediately. Any survivors will need all of the help that they can get.

Mark
www.michiganmartins.com
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Old 07-06-2009, 01:21 PM   #2
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bummer. Wonder if you put out some sterilite boxes filled with crickets during such weather spells if that would be enough to sustain some of the smaller colonies. Crickets are fairly easy to mass produce as long as the insects are kept warm (a whole room can be heated with an oil radiant heater pretty cheaply or if you're more adventorous flexxwatt heat tape combined with a rheostat could be used) or did the birds just shore up and not go looking for food? Waxworms have a high fat content and I've also found them easy to produce in abundance using a dogfood/honey mixture. In fact they were too successful and spread around the house once.
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Old 07-07-2009, 09:13 AM   #3
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If a purple martin "landlord" knew that this event was coming and had thousands of crickets it may have helped. Purple martins have to be trained to take food that is not flying. Entire colonies can "learn" this, but it takes time and patience. My colony is 40 miles from home and I had no idea that the weather was bad enough to prevent the birds from finding enough food. I have known since I started hosting that I could not provide "emergency feeding", but one landlord has trained her birds to eat scrambled eggs. This works well before nesting to help the adults during cold snaps. This landlord fed eight dozen eggs each day, Monday through Friday and experienced the largest loss of young in 16 years of hosting martins. I know one landlord that did feed crickets, but she refuses to check her nests. We won't know if it worked for a few weeks.
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Old 07-07-2009, 08:08 PM   #4
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8 dozen scrambled eggs would be a lot of crickets! If that didn't help much, I'd be surprised if the crickets did either unless they were fed to the young more efficiently or the young birds process the insects differently or something.
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Old 07-07-2009, 09:25 PM   #5
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Mark,

I just wanted to express my sympathies. Losing so many at once must be truly difficult.

Even though you didn't make your new site record this year, the purple martins that did make it surely appreciated your efforts; and of course, every new nesting pair becomes important in supporting the species.

Thank you for all your hard work.
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Old 07-08-2009, 09:59 AM   #6
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midwesternerr,

That's exactly why so many folks have gone to scrambled eggs for emergency feeding. Unless you raise your own crickets (and/or mealworms) you would have to have a huge bank account to purchase all of the food that you need. And, emergency feeding is only necessary for a short time and only some years. The lady that fed scrambled eggs has at least 48 compartments and is usually at 100% occupancy. That is almost 100 adult birds, not counting the one year old (subadults) that can't find a mate to pair up with and visitors. Since hatching was almost complete at my site, it would have been at her site, too. A low average would be four young per nest. That's another 200 birds. Also, other bird species take advantage of the situation. Yes, it's a lot of food required to keep all of those birds alive. That's why a few non-feeding days is a disaster.

Calliandra,

Thank you. It is difficult to witness and tend to the dead young. It's not so much all of the years of work as it is just to see the devastation. The northern states have lost tens of thousands of young purple martins. They are not a common bird to begin with. It will take generations of the species to recover these losses.
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Old 07-08-2009, 11:14 PM   #7
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Big crocodile tears for you fishlkmich.
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Old 07-09-2009, 08:51 AM   #8
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fishlkmich the purple martins are also pulling on my heart strings. Could you start a post about attracting/housing purple martin?
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Old 07-09-2009, 04:45 PM   #9
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I'm so sorry for your loss.
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Old 07-10-2009, 08:57 AM   #10
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Thanks to everyone.

I'm headed for my first week of Great Lakes trout and salmon fishing right after work today. I can get a good purple martin thread going when I return. I host tree swallows and bluebirds at the same site (difficult in most areas - sort of like hitting the trifecta). I've learned a lot of tricks that would help anyone getting started.
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bird, bird deaths, birds in decline, birds in winter, feeding purple martins, house sparrows, invasive birds, martin attraction, martins, microevolution, midwest, midwest purple martins, purple, purple martins, sparrows, wiped

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