Page 9 - Discover Summer 2021
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Purple Martins

                     A Bird of a Different Feather

                                                                                  By Tim Ernandes

           Common folklore hails the robin as a harbinger       relative warmth, and shelter from predators.
        of spring… and has as much scientific validity
                                                                   Purple Martins are extremely social creatures,
        as the groundhog’s shadow. With apologies and
                                                                and although they always return to their “colony”
        all due respect to the “red, red robin”, if you are
                                                                breeding sites, they generally do not travel in
        looking for an early sign of spring, you will do
                                                                flocks with the other members of their breeding
        better to be on the lookout for a Purple Martin.
                                                                colonies. They seem to choose their traveling
           People react in surprise when they see a robin       companions at random, based on their travel
        on a cold day in January, because they assume that      schedule. Their migration numbers are more akin
        they should be wintering in a warmer climate.           to swarms than flocks, often registering signatures
        While some robins do migrate to the south in            on Doppler radar screens. When they arrive at
        the winter, their principal reason for doing so         their final tropical destination, purple martins
        is the search for food. In fact, many robins do         roost with other martin species, often in small
        not migrate, and they often show themselves             parks in and around cities.
        in northern climes in the dead of winter. In the
                                                                   The return journey is usually spearheaded by
        colder months, they spend more time roosting
                                                                the oldest birds, both male and female, who were
        in trees, and thus less time digging for worms in
                                                                once thought to be “scouts”, who flew north in
        suburban yards.
                                                                search of suitable breeding sites for the colony,
           The purple martin is a bird of an entirely           and then returned south to guide the rest of
        different feather.                                      the flock to the chosen site. We now know that
                                                                martin colonies are random collections of birds;
           Martins migrate to the tropics in the
                                                                their only connection to each other is a common
        wintertime, and for those who summer in
                                                                breeding site, to which they return faithfully. The
        Virginia, the long migration begins as early as
                                                                reason why the older birds arrive ahead of the
        Mid-July. This prolonged process may happen in
                                                                others is the intense competition for nesting sites,
        several stages, over a period of several weeks or
                                                                and they have learned that the early bird gets first
        even longer. They travel to South America on a
        5000-mile journey, stopping at large communal
        “roosts” where they sleep at night. These roosts           In our area, one can expect to see the arrival
        are usually located near large bodies of water, but     of the first Purple Martins around the middle of
        sometimes they will be in clumps of trees, or even      March. Martins are insectivores, and they feed
        in man-made structures in city and suburban             in flight, so their migratory schedules will vary
        areas. Most of them are habitual stops for these        to some degree with the weather, which in turn
        itinerant songbirds, usually chosen for their           will determine the availability of flying insects

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