Reprinted from: Purple Martin Update 10(2)
159 Cedar Glade Road
Mt. Vernon, AR 72111
To all of our Purple Martin landlord hopefuls out there, and I know there are many, we haven't forgotten about you. We are all pulling for you THIS VERY SEASON to attract your first nesting martins. There is definitely a formula for success when establishing a new colony. I would ask that you answer the following questions to ensure that you have done everything possible to lure in these elusive swallows:
1) Have You Provided Adequate and Varied Housing? I highly recommend for those folks trying to establish a colony for the first time that they offer a combination of an apartment-style martin house along with large (11" diameter and larger), natural gourds. While the plastic gourds are improving, I have found from years of personal experience that natural gourds are still more attractive to the martins. I have also found that the more cavities you offer, the better your chances of attracting martins. I would not offer less than a minimum of 10 compartments (for example Trio housing converted from 12 to 6 compartments, along with 4 gourds) when just getting started.
2) Have You Constructed Man-made Nests in the Compartments? A great attraction device when luring in martins to nest for the first time is to provide a man-made nest in the compartments waiting for them to take possession. Martins are like people when it comes to housing accommodations and prefer to move in to a compartment that appears to have been previously occupied by other martins. Would you rather move into a home with nothing in it, or a home already furnished with the finest furniture and appliances at no additional charge? I highly recommend building a nest pad approximately 1-2" thick of materials that martins would naturally use to construct their nest such as dry pine needles or straw, dry leaves, small pieces of bark, or short twigs. And to really make this "nest" attractive, smear a little wet mud on the BOTTOM OUTSIDE edge of the entrance hole, and put liquid mud into a paper cup and pour some INTO the INSIDE of the entrance hole to replicate the mud "dam" that martins will build in the fronts of their nest.
3) Are You Waging War on Non-native [English] House Sparrows and European Starlings? Any person out there that is not actively trapping and/or shooting these introduced, non-native pests of the avian world from your unoccupied martin housing and gourds will probably end up without success, unless you happen to live in the South where local martin populations are much higher and they are forced to be less choosy when selecting housing. If you are serious about becoming a good martin landlord you must do everything in your power to prevent these avian rats from becoming established in your martin housing. If you are thinking to yourself, "well, I hope that the martins can get along with a few sparrows or Starlings" then you don't need to be trying to attract martins. House Sparrows will puncture and throw martin eggs from housing and peck nestlings to death. Starlings are even worse. They will actively seek and take over, by force, martin housing that is occupied by martins, cornering martins in the compartments and pecking their eyes out and killing them.
4) Are You Playing the Purple Martin Dawnsong or Daytime Chatter Recordings and Deploying Purple Martin Decoys? The Dawnsong has proven to be one of the most powerful tools used today to attract martins to a new site. It is the recording of ASY (after second year), or adult black male martins singing a song in the predawn hours that is used to lure subadult martins (those that were raised last year) to their colony site. Anyone that uses this tape can tell you that IT WORKS. While you cannot guarantee that martins will STAY after investigating your housing, at least half the battle is won by just getting them there to check things out. And, if you have taken the other steps mentioned above by creating man-made nests complete with mud dams, your chances are even greater of getting a few martins to stay and nest. The newest recording used for martin attraction is the daytime chatter recording. This may prove with time to be the most effective attraction device using recorded martin vocalizations. It is the sounds of an active colony during daytime hours and can be effectively played throughout the day. Purple Martin decoys are believed to further enhance your chances of attracting martins by adding to the illusion of genuine colony site activity. Decoys, Dawnsong tapes & CD's can be ordered from the PMCA.
5) From a Bird's-eye View, Is your Martin Housing Placed in the Most Open Flight Path Area of your Property? Contrary to most of the general "rules" for martin housing placement, I feel that you can somewhat cheat on the "place housing within 100 feet of your own home" rule and put it further away, if it gets the housing in a more open area. Martins are very wary of nesting in housing close to tall trees because they can harbor two of their deadliest enemies, Cooper's Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks. It is better, in my opinion, to place the housing even further away from your own home if it gets it more in the open. My current gourd rack is at least 200' from my home. I would also avoid placing it too close to barns or other outbuildings as hawks also use these to conceal their swift approach when launching attacks. Look at your yard as a martin would. Where can I swoop in from that will give me the most open flight path available? Then, place your housing accordingly. Additionally, it is always a bonus to place housing near telephone wires for perching and preening and also near water (a lake or pond). This is where the martins would prefer the housing to be placed so they can easily access the water for bathing and drinking.
6) Are You a Member of the Purple Martin Conservation Association? Knowledge is power, even in the Purple Martin interest. The Purple Martin Conservation Association (PMCA) is by far the best organization out there to become involved with. They are a non-profit group headed by an ornithologist and the PMCA's goal is to study martin behavior and preserve the Purple Martin as one of the most beautiful breeding species of passerine bird in North America. You benefit by hearing of the most cutting-edge martin management tools and techniques that are available anywhere. And, membership dues are used in martin research projects and educational grants. Arm yourself with the best martin information available and join the PMCA today.
Conclusion: I truly believe that if you have followed at least steps 1-5 listed above, you have won more than half the battle in becoming an active landlord. Now, you must just exercise patience and think about your site. Acquire some very large natural gourds and add them to your setup if you are missing them. This is what worked for me in the past. Also, I highly advise that you use a combination of round holes and SREH (Starling-resistant entrance hole) on martin housing if you are just getting started. Martins investigating a new site are easily discouraged and intimidated so it is probably a good idea not to use SREH holes exclusively until the martins have established themselves. However, you may want to leave SREH doors on the larger compartments of modified housing (6" x 12") to prevent starlings from becoming established UNTIL you see martins coming to investigate. By this time, you should have already discouraged starlings from hanging around. Lastly, you need to have confidence that you will be successful, and yet exhibit patience at the same time. Martin populations around North America vary greatly from one geographic region to the next. However, if you have done everything correctly, the question is WHEN will you successfully attract martins instead of WILL I ever attract them. One last thought; find a local friend that is also into martins and that has a successful colony. This will allow you to get your martin "fix" while anxiously awaiting for some to choose your own site. It also allows you to intimately study martin behavior up close and in person, and come up with your own ideas to modify your site and make it more attractive to martins.
Kent Justus was the PMCA's 1998 Landlord of the Year, and this article was previously published on the PMCA Forum, www.purplemartin.org/forum.
Copyright 1998 by Purple Martin Conservation Association. All Rights Reserved.
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