Purple Martins at Western Academy

by Isaac Block, Teacher, Western Academy
Summer 2014: Purple Martins preparing to roost for the night

It started in the summer of 2014 with an invitation to watch the Purple Martins congregate before their fall migration to South America.  Mary Anne Morris, Houston Audubon’s education director, invited me to attend “Purple Martin Migration Madness” Watch Party at the Fountains Shopping Center in Stafford off I-59 south.  I drove down with my family (my daughter Catherine, who has just turned nine, was one at the time), and we watched in awe as several hundred thousand (yes, you read that right!) Purple Martins swirled in the skies and skimmed the water of the retention ponds for an evening drink before landing in the trees around the shopping center.  They congregate in these mind-boggling numbers partly for safety, in what are known as pre-migratory roosts.  There are so many birds that when they take off in the morning, the birds show up on weather radar as they radiate out from their roosting sites!

Spring 2015: Hexagon two-story Martin tower at Western Academy

In January 2015 Mary Anne put me in touch with Bob Wall, a Houston Audubon Nature Photography Association Member, who donated a two-story metal hexagon Purple Martin house to Western Academy.  We mounted it on a 12-foot pole that was part of the chain-link fence that used to run the length through of what is now the middle of campus.  We set the house up in the median in the middle of the main driveway.  That spring, we had our first Purple Martins!

What a joy to hear the Purple Martins chortling above campus, and watching them circle and swoop above our heads!  Because the metal house was permanently fixed to the top of a pole, there was no way to lower the house and count eggs or check on the Purple Martins, so we have no accurate numbers from those first few years.  Mary Anne donated several white gourds, which we hung beneath the metal house, but the Purple Martins seemed to prefer the higher cavities and House Sparrows moved into the gourds.  A few House Sparrows and at least one European Starling pair moved into some of the upper chambers as well.  For three years we used the hexagon Martin house, enjoying the return of the Purple Martins to campus each April.  Every year we waited with eager anticipation for the distinctive chortling and flying antics of these harbingers of Spring!

In the summer of 2017 Mary Anne put me in contact with Matthew Fendley, a Purple Martin Landlord at the University of Houston.  Matt graciously drove out to Western Academy to offer advice on our setup.  Matthew was extremely knowledgeable and helpful, explaining that the gourds we had put up (and that were now occupied with House Sparrows) had crescent entrances.  Although these entrances were designed to be starling proof, we had seen at least one starling easily pass through.  The crescent-shaped entrance wasn’t ideal because Martins sometimes got trapped and stuck in the entrance hole (this primarily happens when Martins are fighting over a gourd).  Matt suggested switching to gourds with Conley II starling-resistant entrances, which are easier for the Martins to learn to use and accept.  He also suggested we use gourds with Troyer tunnels; the long horizontal tunnel neck prevents predators like raccoons and great horned owls from reaching into the nest cavity, and seem to be preferred by Martins.  A further suggestion was to upgrade the regular inspection caps with new heavy-duty caps that included venting, allowing for a cooler interior to the gourds.  Taking all this to heart, in 2018 we purchased a complete Purple Martin pole system with a 3-inch pole and winch for raising and lowering the gourds.  The Purple Martins loved their new set-up!

Spring 2019: 5th Graders checking on the Purple Martins (these students graduated from Western this year and are now heading off to high school!)

Because it was the Purple Martins’ first time using the gourds, we were afraid to lower the gourds too often that first year, so we don’t have an accurate count for the number of hatchlings that were raised that year.  The following Spring, in 2019, we began lowering the gourds for inspection, and incorporated the study of Purple Martins into our 5th grade Natural History curriculum.  What a joy to see the faces of my 5th graders displaying amazement at the diminutive size of the Purple Martin eggs, and to compare their white color to the larger, pale blue eggs of the Starling, and the smaller, grey and speckled-brown eggs of the House Sparrow.  What a pleasure to have students wonder at seeing the newly hatched babies so close, or marvel at seeing pin feathers on a fledgling!

We’ve seen the 2019 count of 38 fledglings more than double with this year’s count, and the pole system is now at capacity with 24 gourds.  Each year as the Purple Martin colony grows, so does their impact on the students and school community.  There are so many Purple Martins now that one can’t help but notice them!  I end the school year with my 3rd grade Natural History class by having each student put together information on their favorite animal and present this information, along with a large colored drawing, to the rest of the class.  This year one of the 3rd graders chose the Purple Martin as his favorite animal!  It helped that his classroom windows face the Purple Martin colony, and daily drop-off in the morning and pick-up in the afternoon is on the driveway directly under the flight path of parent Martins bringing food to their hatchlings.

Spring 2020

Next year we are looking to bring in someone with the necessary federal permits to begin a banding program at Western Academy.  Purple Martin hatchlings are banded to collect data on which birds have returned from migration, parentage, and life expectancy.  We’re also looking to create an educational sign to be set up in front of the Purple Martin colony with explanations for our new families and visitors.  We’ve been gradually improving our roles as Purple Martin landlords and intend to get better at monitoring and collecting data on our colony.  For those interested, here is a summary of the numbers gathered over the last several years:

Spring 2022: Current set-up with 24 gourds and new feeder (with dried mealworms and oyster shells)
  • Spring 2015-2017: we put up a metal hexagon two-story Purple Martin house
  • Spring 2018: transitioned to a new 3-inch pole set-up with 11 gourds
  • Spring 2019: 14 gourds total, 9 Purple Martin nests; last count we had 10 eggs and 28 hatchlings (estimated total of 38 hatchlings)
  • Spring 2020: 18 gourds total, 15 Purple Martin nests, 3 House Sparrow nests; last count we had 18 eggs and 38 hatchlings (estimated total of 56 hatchlings)
  • Spring 2021: 24 gourds total, 16 Purple Martin nests, 6 House Sparrow or Starling nests, 2 empty gourds; last count we had 10 eggs, 45 hatchlings (estimated total of 55 hatchlings)
  • Spring 2022: 24 gourds total; 19 Purple Martin nests; 4 House Sparrow nests, 1 empty gourds; last count we had 14 eggs and 71 hatchlings (estimated total of 85 hatchings)

I’d like to conclude by expressing my heartful gratitude toward everyone who contributed to establishing a successful Purple Martin colony at our school.  Not only have you provided a habitat for the Purple Martins, but you have helped to bring great joy and wonder to the students, faculty, and families of Western Academy, and wildlife viewing for years to come.  Thank you!

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