Poop, Parasites, and More: Helping Purple Martins

PurpleMartin - Photo Earl Harrison
Gourd Houses for Purple Martins

Gourd-shaped Purple Martin houses at the Safari Golf Course.

The youth advisors of the Central Ohio Chapter of the Ohio Young Birders joined Darlene Sillick on July 1 at the Safari Golf Club to check up on the more than fifty Purple Martin nest gourds located there. Our group consisted of young birders, like myself, as well as longtime veterans of conservation in central Ohio, such as Sue Guarasci. Sue even went to the trouble of bringing her own mealworms to feed any runt nestling Purple Martin’s to help them fledge safely and healthily.

We assembled one sweltering afternoon to help with one of these precautionary tasks: replacing the nesting materials inside the nest gourds. This deters parasites and provides a perfect opportunity to record important data about the babies, such as their age. Purple Martins are very susceptible to parasites, and their nests are often overtaken by blowfly infestations, which feed off of the nestlings until they either weaken or possibly die. Often, people are afraid that by removing the parasites and “meddling” with the nest materials, they will in some way deter Purple Martin parents from returning. Not only is this false, but studies by the Purple Martin Conservation Association demonstrate a forty percent increase in fledgling survival in parasite-free nests. This is why dedicated volunteers return every year to clean out these nests and give the nestlings a better chance at survival.

When I arrived to help, I was greeted by the formidable Darlene Sillick, who had come still dressed to the nines from work delegating instructions while zooming around in a property golf cart. She is the best! I was tasked with keeping the little birds in a large plastic bucket, out of the blaring sun and 90-degree heat. As a birder, always looking at birds through binoculars and camera lenses, physically handling them gave me a chance to appreciate the wondrous detail of their feathers and miniature beaks. These tiny wings will grow tremendously over the next ten days, and in just a few months they will migrate 2,000 miles across the Gulf of Mexico.

Elizabeth Kanzeg with a Purple Martin nestling

The author, Elizabeth Kanzeg, holds one of her charges, a Purple Martin nestling.

Physical handling and close-up appreciation of baby birds doesn’t come without its share of excitements; everyone was pooped on at least once. Those of us there for the first time quickly realized why the stack of charts used to measure the birds were laminated! We carefully worked through the gourds one at a time, measuring and aging the birds before returning them to their proper gourd, now filled with fresh dry White Pine needles. Once we placed all the gourds back in their proper spot, Purple Martin parents immediately returned with beakfuls of bugs to feed the chicks. What a rewarding finale to our day of conservation efforts!

Elizabeth Kanzeg is a Youth Advisory Board member of the Central Ohio chapter of the Ohio Young Birders Club.

Male Purple Martin with Prey

A male Purple Martin with insect prey.

Female Purple Martin with Prey

A female Purple Martin with insect prey.

Notes from Darlene Sillick:

Purple Martin Growth Chart

Purple Martin helpers use charts like this to determine the ages of nestlings that they find.

As we monitor our Eastern Bluebird and Tree Swallow nestboxes and record weekly data, we do the same for Purple Martins, up high in their swinging gourds.  Weekly, the baffle is uncoupled, the winch is cranked  down and the excitement begins as we open each of the 24 gourd caps to look at and record the contents. (Editor’s note: Purple Martin nest “boxes”  often are made from gourds. The martins seem to love them!) On July 1, the monitors at Safari Golf Club thought it would be fun to make the nest changes a special event. We invited the members of the Central Ohio chapter of the Ohio Young Birders Club, of which 6 came to help — and, as Elizabeth fondly stated, everyone got pooped on. Technique was important to take the young birds out of the gourd and hold them so they could emit the fecal sac, then go in the large 5 gallon bucket filled with pine straw, then put a towel over the bucket and keep them quiet and out of the direct sun. Doing the weekly checks helps to problem-solve and helps the birds have a healthier colony. Aging the chicks helps with Cornell’s Nestwatch citizen science data and PMCA data on their Martinwatch form. Totals are also submitted to the Ohio Bluebird Society for their annual fledge reports.

At Safari Golf Course, we have 3 rigs with 24 gourds each.  The monitors this year were Paula Ziebarth, Josue Sanchez and his wife Inez, and myself, weekly peering into 72 gourds. A little background on this martin site, in 2011 the first 2 rigs went up and the zoo funded them through their conservation fund via a grant I wrote. A few years later, the Ohio Ornithology Society funded a third rig through their conservation funds. Then this past year, we removed the metal house and replaced it with the third 24 gourd rig funded by Golf Course Supervisor Ted Hunker. We have tremendous support from Ted and his team. The course volunteers and staff help with many aspects of preparing 72 gourds for spring activity, then fall cleaning and storage.

Ted and the course staff have been busy making this a “green course”. In the spring of 2018, the course became certified as an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary course, a process that took three years to complete. Safari Golf Club is now a conservation leader among golf clubs. Ted and his staff worked on and achieved certification in six categories: environmental planning; wildlife and habitat management; outreach and education; chemical use reduction; safety; and water conservation and water quality management. And the birds in their boxes and gourds contributed to the certification process.

In the last two years during the martin nest changes, we have had the help of Michael Kreger, vice president for Conservation at the Columbus Zoo. He has rolled up his sleeves and gotten his hands dirty, all for a good cause: to have healthier martins fledge. But he was having a lot of fun, too, holding the birds. To borrow a quote from him from the summer 2018 issue of the Zoo’s Beastly Banner newsletter, “In 2017, 81 bluebirds and 147 purple martins fledged from nest boxes and rigs (artificial nest cavities) constructed just outside the fairway. Since the program was initiated in 2008, the Safari Golf Club has fledged 563 purple martins and 452 bluebirds”.

I would like to thank Ted Hunker and Michael Kreger for believing in our conservation work at The Columbus Zoo and the Safari Golf Club. The volunteers peeking into nestboxes and gourds are not staff, and the teens and our friends helping with nest changes don’t get paid to deal with ticks and chiggers and dirty nest material sticking to sweaty arms. But what do we get is that we get to help the largest swallows in North America safely raise their young and make a 4,000 mile round trip migration to the Amazon River Basin in South America. We are a little sad when they are gone, but the excitement next April can’t be measured in words. Instead, it is measured in the sweet chortle of the amazing Purple Martins as their numbers swell long into May. Too fun! They return to do it all over again!! I am lucky to do this with Paula Ziebarth, my conservation sidekick.  We have so much gratification teaching and sharing with anyone who will stop, look and listen to these purple gems.

Darlene Sillick is a trustee of the Ohio Bluebird Society and co-advisor of the Central Ohio Chapter of the Ohio Young Birder Club