Farmer File

Humans obviously could survive if there were no purple martins on the planet, but it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun for us.

These critters that sing and soar their way into our neighborhoods and our hearts are smart, brave and innovative as they come visit in the spring and then go be snowbirds in South America in the fall.

Purple martins are common throughout Georgia and a lot of people here are  purple martin friendly, building appropriate housing for them to mate, procreate and raise little PMs to join the flocks.

The housing thing is important. Experts tell me that martins were here long before people showed up. The birds made summer homes out of such availabilities as old woodpecker holes in trees.  

When American Indians began to move through North America, they reportedly realized the martins also often nested in old gourds, so the Indians hollowed out gourds to lure the PMs. Why?

The humans watched the martins and noticed they were eating zillions of flying insects, including dragon flies, beetles, flies, midges, mayflies, bees, stinkbugs, cicadas, flying ants, butterflies, moths, grasshoppers and wasps. (Phew).

They also eat mosquitos, but not as many as some people believe. I think one reason is mosquitos generally are low flying and PMs are not. They do most of their feeding between 160 feet and 500 feet high and mosquitos generally don’t wander up there.

So while the Indians, like the rest of us, figured that the only good mosquito is a dead one, the purple martins had attributes that made them good neighbors.

They chased away crows from corn crops as well as their nests. They give warning calls when other dangers lurk, their song is uplifting (sorry) and cheerful and they put on great acrobatic flight performances to the delight of the humans on the ground.

These days, martins that migrate to and from the eastern US rely almost 100 percent on man-made housing – gourds, birdhouses and such. Only out west are there enough natural amenities, tree trunks, et al., to accommodate these winged wizards.

One of my neighbors has been courting these critters on his property for several decades.

“Their song is the sweetest sound on earth,” he says. “They have one song when trying to find a mate, a very happy song when the mating has begun and a different tune when the babies are in the nest.”

He also enjoys other aspects of purple martin life.

“We often wait with great anticipation for the scouts to show up in late winter or spring. We stay home until almost dark until my birds are safely in their houses.

“And there’s always quite a spectacle when the colony is circling and circling until the command is given to dive into the houses. A spectacular scene.”

I think the coolest parts of the purple martin story are their travel arrangements.

Reports the Columbia County News-Times:

“The journal Science reports that a female martin, fitted with a tiny geo-locater, returned from Brazil to Pennsylvania in thirteen days...and a martin can cover more than 300 miles a day.”

Their to and fro routes vary from five thousand to seven thousand miles each way. So when they get here, be nice. After that trip they love a nice condo. And they’ll not only catch their own supper, they’ll sing for it.

don@donfarmer.com

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