The Best Prescription for Dealing with Purple Martin Dropouts

Reprinted from: Purple Martin Update 1(2): 37
James R. Hill, III


Each summer, countless thousands of Purple Martin nestlings die because they leave their nests, or are forced to leave their nests, prematurely. Most of these premature fledglings survive their flutter/fall to the ground, but quickly succumb to predators, dehydration, and starvation. Parent martins will rarely feed these grounded youngsters, either because they don't recognize them as their own, or because Mother Nature has taught them that such efforts are fruitless.

Putting Birds Back in Their Nests

Martin landlords have very few options when they find a nestling that has fallen out of its nest. The "fallout" has the best chance for survival if put right back in the exact same nest compartment that it came out of, but this can be risky, difficult, and oftentimes futile. If you vertically lower a martin house when it is full of near-fledgling-age young for the purpose of replacing a fallout, others might panic and fledge prematurely. Placing the fallout into the wrong nest compartment can also have detrimental effects. If the replaced bird is older than its new nestmates, it can dominate the incoming food, causing its foster siblings to weaken and starve. On the other hand, putting the youngster into a nest where it is younger than its foster nestmates is equally bad. Under these circumstances, it may not be able to compete for parental food deliveries with its larger nestmates, because it is now a "runt." Returning the fallout to a nest containing young of similar age might appear to be a safe alternative, but under adverse weather conditions, an extra mouth to feed can put added strain on foster parents, and endanger the entire brood.

The PMCA recommends that landlords only attempt replacing fallout nestlings if they are positive that they are getting them back into the correct compartment. Only by conducting accurate, weekly, nest checks and by keeping a martin diary can a martin landlord know with any possible certainty which is the correct compartment. In large colonies, however, determining the correct compartment is virtually impossible (unless the young are banded). And to add to a landlord's frustration, premature fledglings often end up right back on the ground after having been painstakingly replaced into their correct compartments. This is because the cause(s) for their premature fledging haven't changed (e.g. excessive compartment heat, parasite infestations, belligerent nestmates, aggressive trespass by subadult bachelor males, or deliberate infanticide by the bird's parents).

Hand Rearing

Some martin landlords choose to bring prematurely-fledged martins into their homes for hand-rearing. Keeping the nestlings alive requires great dedication and lots of tender loving care. To succeed, human foster parents must feed these ravenous nestlings each hour from dawn to dusk with lots of juicy crickets. Getting the stubborn nestlings to eat at first, often involves the difficult task of force feeding, but the real problem with hand rearing any baby bird is that they become dependent on humans and rarely learn to feed themselves once released back into the wild. In the wild, parent martins continue feeding and instructing their fledglings outside of the nest for up to two weeks after they fledge. So, even if a martin landlord can successfully keep a nestling martin alive until it reaches it physiological fledging age (i.e. about 30-days-old) he is not equipped to teach it the survival skills its parents would. Therefore, the long-term survival chances of hand-reared martins released back to the wild is very low. For all of these reasons, the PMCA only recommends hand rearing as a last resort.

Using a Fallout Shelter

The PMCA feels that placing prematurely-fledged martins into "fallout shelters" attached about six feet off the ground on martin poles is the best remedy for martin landlords who aren't sure which compartments their fallouts fell out of. Putting nestlings into elevated shelters not only gets the helpless youngsters off the ground so they are no longer vulnerable to cats, dogs, crows, and raccoons, but it also gets them high enough above the ground that the parental feeding response is rekindled. And since parent martins don't learn to recognize their own young until they reach fledging age, several parents will "adopt" these youngsters, mistaking them for their own, and will undertake the task of feeding them in the shelters. Adoptive parents will also continue feeding these orphans even after they mature and fly from the shelters. The fledging rate of nestlings placed in elevated fallout shelters is quite high and the PMCA highly recommends their use. These shelters are such a good idea for increasing the survival rate of prematurely-fledged martins, that the PMCA has developed its own design and is pleased to make them available to all martin lovers.


Every summer, at nearly every martin colony, nestling martins die because they are abandoned by their parents when they tumble from their nests before they can fly. Now you can help save the lives of these grounded nestlings. If picked off the ground and placed into a "fallout shelter," nestling martins will continue to be fed by their parents. These shelters are such a good idea for increasing the survival rate of prematurely-fledged martins, that the PMCA has developed its own design and is pleased to make them available to all martin lovers. Made of Western Red Cedar, the PMCA's shelter measures 10" x 12" x 14", features a ship-lapped, cottage-style roof, and with its ample porch, perches, and arching entryway, can shelter up to a dozen martins at once. It attaches to any diameter martin pole (hardware included). This handsome product also doubles as a winter platform feeder. Proceeds from the sale of all PMCA products benefit Purple Martins.

Copyright 1988 by Purple Martin Conservation Association. All Rights Reserved.

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