Sunday, August 9, 2015

Fly Little Purple Bird Fly

Purple Martin in Silva Bay, Gabriola Island
At selected moorages, predominantly along the eastern coast of Vancouver Island, there's a delightful little bird that can be observed constantly flying around and going in and out of little nest boxes that have been mounted on pilings.  It's called a Purple Martin, and it has a remarkable story that I have to share with everyone simply because these birds are so captivating.  In fact I was so charmed by them I built one of the nest boxes just for something to do one day without even realizing I was unwittingly participating in a program that had been established to bring them back from near extinction.

Nesting pair of Purple Martins in Silva Bay
Purple Martins are the largest swallow in North America and, while their range extends throughout most of the continent, the extreme range of the western sub-species is the Georgia Strait basin. Historically Purple Martins nested in woodpecker holes in old trees and old pilings but, as all these habitats slowly disappeared, along with competition from European starlings and house sparrows, their numbers began to rapidly decline until, by the 1980's, there were less than 10 breeding pairs in the area. In 1986 a volunteer based nest-box program got started and the population has steadily increased since to where there are now 1,000 nesting pairs in the Georgia Strait basin.

Incredibly agile, high speed acrobats, these birds have been a favourite of farmers and Native North Americans since day one thanks to their voracious appetite for insects. In the 1960's a conservation movement to promote the Purple Martin as a natural insect control agent, instead of using pesticides, got the nest box program started with a slogan "Two thousand mosquitoes a day" and there are now over a million nest boxes in North America. In the 1980's the invasion of non-native European starlings and house sparrows caused a severe population crash across North America as the Purple Martins got pushed out of their own habitat and they are now almost completely dependant on the artificial nest boxes for their survival.

Purple Martin colony in Tod Inlet
Without the nest boxes the Purple Martins wouldn't survive and without the Purple Martins we would have to put up with a lot more insects than we would like, especially in an anchorage. On the west coast the the preferred location for these boxes is over open water on abandoned pilings in groups of five. They make for a very photogenic installation and, all day you can watch the parents darting in and out of their house as they take turns providing fresh food for the insatiable babies inside.

Purple Martin pair and fledgling in Silva Bay
In the winter the Purple Martins migrate to South America where they soak up the sun east of the Andes in Columbia, Bolivia and Brazil.  They roost in large groups with as many as 5,000 reported on one site in Brazil. There was already an established colony on the dock at Silva Bay on Gabriola Island but, at the end of the nesting season, I decided to put up a nest box to see what would happen. Sure enough when I returned to Silva Bay in late spring I was pleased to see it had been occupied and the parents were busy teaching the babies to speak Spanish.

Nelson installing a Purple Martin nest box in Silva Bay
A symbiotic success story between Mankind and Nature isn't something that happens very often so it's nice to be part of something that's good for everyone, except of course the insects!!! The birds are heading back to South America now after a great summer of warm weather and feasting. Over the winter people are invited to build more nest boxes and wait for the little purple birds to fly back. Check the link below for more information.

All Purple Martin photos by Junie Quiroga