Reprinted from: Purple Martin Update 9(4): 26-28
Purple Martin Conservation Association
During a stretch of unusually poor weather in late April 2000, Andy Troyer, a local Amish landlord, called the PMCA to say that some of his martins were close to dying. It had been cold, windy and rainy for over a week, with very few breaks. Some martins appeared weak and wobbly; they were all very hungry. Since martins feed exclusively on flying insects, which arent active under these adverse weather conditions, martins can starve to death after 4-5 days. Until now, there was little a landlord could do to save his or her martins from dying under these circumstances.
In the early 90s, PMCA Landlord of the Year Ed Donath developed a technique of training his martins to recognize and accept nontraditional food items (mealworms and scrambled egg) during good weather, so that they would accept the same items in times of foul weather. His technique appeared in Update 4(3):2-4; and Update 6(1):6-8). While his method is ingenious and effective, it requires a substantial amount of time and effort well in advance of a foul weather emergency.
There are also anecdotal reports of people who successfully fed their weather-starved martins by placing insects or larvae right on the martin housing or by throwing them into the air. Dave Franzer of St. Peters, MO, had success in getting some of his martins to eat live crickets placed right inside the martin house. He is convinced this saved his birds, and the incident led me to write the article Emergency Foul-weather Feeding of Martins: Crickets Could save your Colony Site!, which appeared in Purple Martin Update 9(1). Bruce Meyer of Wichita, KS, was able to get his hungry martins to catch mealworms that he rocketed into the air with a slingshot. Ryan Speckman of Raleigh, NC, also fed his martins by throwing crickets into the air during a cold snap. However, these incidents were rare, the details sketchy, and no surefire emergency method of saving martins from starvation existed.
Nonetheless, these anecdotal reports were of great interest to me because I am a native of southwestern Pennsylvania, where the unceasing rains of Tropical Storm Agnes killed almost all the martins and their young in June of 1972. I saw the need for a simple and reliable emergency feeding technique that would prevent massive weather-related die-offs that can obliterate colony sites. Weather extremes are, after all, one of the most common reasons colony sites are lost and regional declines occur. One severe spring snowstorm or a solid week of rain during the breeding season can kill hundreds of martins and undo years of recovery efforts.
So, when Andy Troyer, who has one of the largest colonies in the state of Pennsylvania, called on that raw April day, I was genuinely concerned about his birds, and saw it as an excellent opportunity to try some emergency feeding ideas. I ordered 1000 live 6-week-old crickets (the biggest size available) and had them delivered overnight. I drove to Andys site the next day with a terrarium full of crickets, a few ideas, and a slingshot in my pocket (for slinging crickets).
Upon arrival, Andys son Adam and I lowered all the houses. Surprisingly, all of the martins were gone. The weather had moderated just enough (upper 40s) for them to try scrounging up a few insects at a nearby lake, where we later found them foraging just inches above the water. They couldnt have been getting much to eat a few gnats maybe. Several sat in a dead snag nearby, looking weak and with wings drooped. They were desperate.
In the meantime, we had loaded one of the martin houses with live crickets and raised it, hoping that when the martins returned they would discover and eat them. We left all the other houses down so that the martins would be forced to congregate in the cricket house. As we suspected, the martins werent having much success foraging, because they soon began to trickle back into the colony site and perch on the top perches of the now-lowered houses. I didnt see any of the martins that entered the cricket-filled house show an immediate interest in the crickets, so I decided to slingshot a few crickets at a couple of martins perched nearby. The martins heads jerked as they intently watched the crickets fly by. This was encouraging, so I flung a few more. Suddenly, one of the martins took off after the airborne cricket, but missed it. As I continued to fling crickets, more martins went after them and eventually began catching them.
Soon, three of us were throwing crickets into the air, and many more martins began to catch on and go after them. As time went on, we became better at tossing and the martins became better at catching. Eventually, close to forty martins were snapping up the crickets in the air all around us. The darting and swooping martins sometimes brushed by us in their eagerness to get to a free-falling cricket. Several martins would often go after the same cricket, until at the last second, one would pull away. Occasionally, a martin would swoop down and expertly snag the cricket a split second before it hit the ground. Combined, these 40 martins ate close to 700 crickets. It was a spectacular and moving experience!
We could tell they were becoming full as they became less and less intent on going after the airborne crickets. The feeding frenzy lasted almost an hour, and I was eager to get back to PMCA headquarters to share the good news. Everyone was ecstatic.
I tried throwing crickets at a couple of cold and hungry-looking martins at PMCAs main research site the next day with equal success. It was necessary to toss about 5-7 crickets before the first martin started taking off after them (crickets can be retrieved if they hit the ground). The behavior is contagious; once one martin learns to do it, others quickly catch on. The next day, when the martins saw the cricket tank being carried down to the PMCA colony site, they became noticeably excited and caught the first cricket tossed! At Troyers site, the martins were actually following Andy around the next day, looking for handouts like a bunch of seagulls at the beach!
Initially, the key to getting martins to go after the crickets is to get them as high in the air as possible, so that the martins have time to spot them, leave their perch, and intercept them before they hit the ground. As the martins catch on, they are in the air more often, and you can time your throw so that the crickets meet the flying martins in midair.
Several weeks later, during another less severe cold spell, I was successful in getting 5-7 martins at Moraine State Park in Portersville, PA, to take live crickets right off the porches of a martin house on two successive days. I watched through my spotting scope as martins landed and spotted the crickets almost immediately. Half a dozen martins ate 3-4 crickets each. Im sure the martins werent as stressed, since the weather had moderated. However, this experience demonstrates that at least some martins will accept crickets placed right on martin housing. If martins are accustomed to using an eggshell feeder, it is likely they would take them from there as well.
I am confident that these emergency feeding techniques could also be used during foul weather spells when martins have young in the nest. At least some parents will accept the crickets or mealworms in the same manner and feed them to their young. Nestlings are not nearly as hardy as adults, and just two straight days of cold or rainy weather could cause them to starve as a result of the parents inability to find an adequate amount of flying insects. If martins suffer reproductive failure for any reason they will usually abandon their breeding site forever. Inexperienced subadult parents with hungry nestlings may be especially likely to accept crickets placed on the porch in front of their cavity. Consider ordering smaller crickets if the weather emergency occurs when parents have small nestlings to feed. Four-week-old crickets are 1/2 long and are the same price. Even very small pinhead crickets can be purchased in bulk; consider these if the martins have tiny young in the nest.
I am convinced that using crickets (as opposed to mealworms or some other food item) is the key to getting martins started on taking hand-tossed feedings. Crickets look very much like one of the martins natural prey items grasshoppers, which belong to the same Order of insects Orthoptera. After your martins have become accustomed to accepting crickets, you could offer them large mealworms, which they will also accept. Andy Troyers martins now readily accept hand-tossed mealworms even during marginal weather.
Do not underestimate the hardiness of Purple Martins. They are accustomed to coping with the rigors that nature often poses, including short periods of foul weather. This is an emergency feeding technique and is not necessarily meant to save every single martin that would otherwise die because of weather-related stress. The process of natural selection insures the survival of the fittest by weeding out the sick, weak, and otherwise marginally fit individuals of any given species. Cricket tossing is meant to keep martins from starving on a massive scale, or to ensure the survival of very small colony sites that would otherwise be wiped out.
An average martin weighs about 55 grams (two ounces) and will lose 4-5 grams per day without any food (Nature Society News: 33(4): 6). Once a martin drops below about 75% of its body weight, it begins to break down and digest its primary flight muscles, and soon dies. Therefore, since the average martin will survive for only about four to five days without food, it is best to try offering an emergency cricket feeding after only three days of foul, insect-less weather. However, you could also try offering them crickets after only one or two days; whenever you think the martins would accept them. Dont be discouraged by early failures. If the martins do not accept the tossed crickets its a good bet theyre just not desperate enough. However, be sure to toss at least a dozen crickets at several different martins before giving up. Also, be sure to try placing some crickets on the porches and eggshell feeder.
Four meteorological conditions prevent martins from foraging successfully by depleting the air of insects: constant temperatures below about 50 degrees, steady rain, strong winds, and dense fog. If any of these conditions (or combination of conditions) persist continuously for more than about three days, some martins will start dying. For someone who is monitoring their colony closely, it will be obvious that the martins are in trouble; they will just sit listlessly on the martin house all day (or they will attempt to form a communal cavity roost). They know that foraging would waste energy.
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