Time To Peek Inside

My Purple Martins have been gathering hundreds of green leaves from all our trees for the last 2 weeks. No tree has been spared – the cherry, poplar, sugar maple, and river birch trees have all had their topmost, newest, most tender new leaves stripped as male and female martins alike, attack them in frenzy.  No one is sure why they need the green leaves.  Via the PMCA:

“The function of the green leaves is still unknown, but is thought to act as an insecticide or may help in regulating the temperature and moisture levels in the nest.”

I’m not sure if it’s more fun to watch the martins strip the trees or watch Mr. Freeze’s face as he watches in horror as all of his most treasured trees become stunted for another year.  Since I really lack any good pictures of the “Gathering of the Leaves”, my friend – a fellow purple martin landlord and professional photographer, Jonathan Spangler sent me these photos to share with you.

[Click on the pictures below to view the close-ups].

Today was my 3rd nest check of the season and everyone was due.  It’s part of the price they pay for living here on Gobbler’s Knob.  Sound off, boys and girls – time for the count!  I know this part can be intimidating for a lot of people, but it’s actually fun and really easy, with only three primary rules to follow;

  1. I only perform nest checks after 12 P.M. since females lay their eggs during the morning hours;
  2. I only do nest checks on warm days – my personal rule is 70 degrees or above, so the eggs do not get too cold during the check; and
  3. I don’t handle the eggs. Counting eggs requires a gentle touch to carefully move aside the leaves to view the eggs beneath and avoid leaving any oily residue from my hands on the eggs, or accidentally cracking them.

The PMCA provides a nice, handy guide for other nest check tips – click here to read it.  One of the most delightful things I’ve learned about our birds is they are VERY tolerant of us voyeurs and wannabe scientists. The martins were first: Oh MY! Now I know where all those green leaves went!

Purple Martin eggs – with a variety of fresh cherry, maple, poplar and River Birch tree leaves.

I mostly take a “hands-off” approach when it comes to eggs.  The Purple martins and Mother Nature are a lot wiser than I am and they know if their eggs are fertile and when / if they will hatch. There are only a few times that I will intervene.

Today, I lightly marked the 5 eggs in Gourd 20 with a small Sharpie, since they are now 6 days past due.  I won’t pull them yet – that is the martins’ job right now if they choose.  The eggs likely got too cold during the cold spell here and this pair will probably renest.  Once I see a new egg laid (renest), I’ll start removing 1 or 2 of the old eggs at a time, so that I don’t spook the Momma and leave her thinking a predator is at work.

When I still had my Trendsetter house with porches, if I found an egg on the porch, I would take it and dispose of it.  But with 100% all gourds now, it’s rare that I find an egg pushed out of the nest.  If I do, I push it back in the nest only once as it could have gotten kicked out during a territorial skirmish. But if I find it kicked out again on the next check, then I dispose of it.

Purple Martin eggs – with a variety of fresh cherry, maple, poplar and River Birch tree leaves.

The female will start brooding her eggs the day before the last egg is laid – which means most eggs will hatch in approximately 15 days and usually within 24 hours of each other.  The only other time I will remove eggs from the nest are those that are at least 7 to 8 days past their hatch date and the other eggs have hatched in the nest – at this point the old egg(s) are at risk of being crushed and making a mess in the nest. We’re not at that point yet though, as the counting fun has just started!

The tree swallows and bluebirds were up next. Where DO the tree swallows get all those wonderful, colorful varieties of beautiful feathers?  Seriously, I really want to know! I imagine them sneaking around and plucking the neighbors chickens, roosters and guineas and laugh at the idea of all these birds running around befuddled and wondering what just hit them.

Tree swallow nests are simultaneously soft, sweet and tough.  They are so intertwined, they don’t come apart easily, yet all the feathers make it a soft, luxurious and cozy nest for the sweetest, smallest little babies.

One of the Moms checks over her shoulder to make sure I’m really leaving before she re-enters her box.

My second pair of bluebirds are working on their second nest.  They are quite the battle-worn pair – they have fought off the battalions of tree swallows in order to keep this nest box, but once they laid their eggs, the tree swallows were respectful and left them to it.  And THAT is the big difference between native competitors and non-native competitors.  Any English house sparrows that happen along would not only kill the resident parents, but also throw out any eggs or nestlings.  The Tree Swallows however, tip their hats, bow and concede to the winners and flit away to find other housing.

The last nest check of the day had a surprise waiting for me – the first baby tree swallows have hatched!  Swoooon!!  These were found in my original “House sparrow trap box” that I had made ONLY for trapping house sparrows.  Time had gotten away from me and a pair of tenacious Tree swallows managed to build a nest and lay eggs before I could remove the box.  Since they already had eggs, I could only repair the roof so it wouldn’t leak on the Mom as she brooded her eggs and she surprised me by hatching the FIRST tree swallow babies of the season!  Who’s next?


Kathy Freeze lives in Licking, MO and has been a Purple Martin landlord since 2007. Her colony has grown from one pair the first year to 82 pair to date, despite a Great Horned Owl’s persistent attacks during the last few years. Kathy states, “I owe my site’s success to the support from the PMCA, strong invasive species control, predator guards, open flyways and nest checks. Sharing my passion for Purple Martins with others is my favorite pastime.”

10 thoughts on “Time To Peek Inside”

  1. I’m always excited to read your blog! I have my first tree swallows this year. Lost my first five baby bluebirds to sparrows. Thankfully the pair built another nest and laid 5 more eggs. I attached a spooker, and the babies fledged last Monday.

  2. Thank you, Kathy for the tip about using a sharpie on overdue eggs. My initial ASY pair may have eggs affected by the earlier cold temperatures as well. I love your pictures!

  3. great post. i also wondered where the tree swallows get all those big feathers, i think when they visit local ponds to get a drink, they encounter water fowl feathers floating about. i’m pretty certain that would be the most likely source. and you could verify when the breeding season is over by getting an expert to examine them.

  4. Thanks Kathy, it’s always great to hear from another dedicated Purple Martin Landlord. I know about the tree thing. My bird’s love to mob the trees in my front yard and down by the creek. Even yesterday as I was outside talking with a friend who had just drove up. My Martin’s were attacking in group the Water Oaks (Pin Oaks) in my front yard.
    He asked me why they were doing that and that started another conversation about my Bird’s.
    I Love My Bird’s, and I Love to talk about them.! Rodger Drye

  5. Very nice photography and related text. Whew! I live in North Central Pennsylvania where the Martin population is very sparse. We have only one known landlord in our large Lycoming County. We have several sites in waiting that appear to be set to PMCA standards. I enjoy helping those in waiting who attempt to improve their sites to make them even better when approached. Presentations like this are most helpful to those willing to become even better landlords.

  6. Thanks for this great blog and insights to the PM world. I have nurtured a small community for 5 years. This year we experienced a devastating snake attack. A large black snake was able to defeat my snake guard by using a rope that was stowed around the guard. I caught the snake in the gourd but not before he destroyed the eggs and who knows what else. I removed the gourd, snake and put it back up on the rack. My remaining 3 pairs stuck around for about 10 days then they abandoned the roost..

    We are very depressed about loosing our PMs for this season. I hope they return but not sure how to erase the snake taint they my be printed on our birds and gourds. I’m passing this along as a lesson learned the hard way. Landlords have to make sure the snake guard is totally free of anything that would allow the guard to be defeated. Black snakes particularly are relentless in trying to get to the nests.

    Last year before the arrival of the Martins we had a bear attack. My pole was bent to the ground by a bear looking for eggs. I was able to remount and welcome the seasons birds but needed a new pole. Though we survived the bear this year we succumbed to a nasty black snake!!

  7. I just made a deluxe mate apartment birdhouse for purple martins hoping it works here in Ohio

  8. I bet they but those fresh non-fallen green leaves in there nest because it provides warmth and is softer then dry brown leaves and for the tree swallow nest feathers where maybe the dead purple Martin feathers they won have you ever studied the feathers you should.

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