Purple Martin Mystery

by Paul Martel ©2000 TGBTG

On Wednesday afternoon at about a quarter to four, my wife Irma came excitedly into the living room to tell me that something very strange was happening in our backyard. She said that she had never seen birds behave that way before and that I should come out and see.

From my childhood I have been curious about the natural world, observing and reading about various things in it. It is this interest that had prompted me to recall that as a child I had built a small birdhouse one spring and had observed a family of purple martins and how at times there would be a dozen or more of them congregating on it. So twenty or more years later I had built a slightly larger version with four apartments.

Attracting and keeping a family of martins was, however, not as easy as it was then. All I did then was to nail a wooden box together with a piece of linoleum floor tile with a hole cut in it. My neighbor, Mr. Frank, already had a family of martins which he called "bee mouths". So, his birds simply checked out another vacancy in the neighborhood.

I built my four compartment house around the first of March. A few sparrows and a couple of starlings arrived on the premises shortly after the house was erected. However, I was not concerned and certain that the martins would take over what was rightfully theirs. On the morning of March twenty-first, the first day of spring, I heard the unmistakable sounds of a pair of martins. An adult male (glossy purple) and his mate were investigating my apartments and making the high pitched cry followed by warbling and clicks characteristic of these birds.

Other martins later joined the pair, but after about three days, they disappeared. I felt disappointed and yet hopeful that they would come back. One day at work I picked up a magazine on gardening and in it was an article on purple martins. The article stated that martins prefer nest boxes in the open with room to swoop, I suppose. Also, I found out that they receive a lot of competition from starlings and sparrows. Starlings were introduced into this country from Europe and have no natural enemies. Well, they had one now.

Since I had erected my bird house near some trees, I took it down and selected a new site in the open. The magazine article that I had read suggested to line the insides of the boxes with aluminum foil since starlings prefer dark secretive places and martins are accustomed to aluminum houses. This made sense to me, so I did it. I even shortened two of my compartments from six to eight inches since these were the dimensions recommended for the martins. Finally, the house was ready and erected accordingly.

The next morning, as I awakened, I heard a scratching and picking sound outside my window. To my amazement there was a piece of aluminum foil floating down from the birdhouse. Soon, a starling emerged from one of the holes with another piece in its mouth and tossed it out. I showed my wife and we both stared in awe and disbelief. We both share an interest and fascination with animal behavior.

Of course, this was war. Using my son's Daisy rifle, I scared the bird off. It took several days to convince them that the house was off limits. Three young martins, two females and a male, arrived a few days later. They were cautious and afraid of the starlings at first, and even the tiny sparrows tried to fight them off. The martins could handle the sparrows, but were afraid of the starlings and would fly away when they would land on the birdhouse. So I had to borrow my son Eric's air rifle again. Although I didn't kill any starlings, several near misses were convincing enough. This went on for several days. Each time I saw a starling in the vicinity , I would shoot nearby. Finally, just the cocking of the gun was enough to send them flying. My three martins were not disturbed by this and took full possession of their new home and began nest building. All was quiet until that Wednesday afternoon.

As I reached the back door I could see that several martins were circling the birdhouse. I couldn't count, but it seemed like eight or nine. As we observed from the yard, one or two birds would approach the bird house from the circle and hover directly in front of where one of my martins were nesting. Irma said that they had doing this for several minutes and since she had found it strange, she had called me out to see it. The birds continued to circle and approach the birdhouse and hover as one of my female martins peeped out of her nest. After a while, she flew out and joined the circle which had grown to a dozen or more. The group continued to circle with two or three birds approaching the nest at a time seeming to want to land but hovering for a while and then flying off to join the circle. My martin returned to her nest and landed, went inside for awhile and then came out upon the ledge as the others continued to circle and approach and hover. Thinking that this was some sort of ritual of birth, I got out my binoculars and looked for baby martins, but I couldn't see any. After a couple of minutes my martin joined the others and the circle gradually began to diminish as the other martins flew off into the distance until all of them were gone.

This happened about twelve years ago, and it remains a mystery to me today. After it happened I contacted I had contacted The Purple Martin Conservation Association and was told that it probably was a snake near the nest which had caused that martins to act that way, but that didn't make sense to me. I still believe that it was some ancient natural ritual of behavior which had been never or rarely observed, and we were privileged to witnessed it.

by Paul Martel ©2000 TGBTG