Purple Martins

  Purple martins perched above a nest box are at ease around humans due to their peaceful co-existence with their Amish landlords. Photo by Arlene Koziol.

Purple martins perched above a nest box are at ease around humans due to their peaceful co-existence with their Amish landlords. Photo by Arlene Koziol.

The bird enthusiasts of Wisconsin have a long history with the purple martin, a species that has become reliant on humans for nesting throughout the country. For hundreds of years, purple martin supporters have constructed nest boxes to house these charming birds each summer. In recent decades, purple martin populations have been in decline for reasons that are not yet fully understood.

I am a graduate student from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was fortunate to be awarded a Wisconsin Society for Ornithology (WSO) Steenbock Award to help fund my project.  I am working with the Madison Audubon Society to study purple martin nesting and the factors that contribute to successful colonies throughout south central Wisconsin. Colony success throughout the area is thought to be mainly attributed to the regular cleaning, maintenance, and management of nest boxes with large cavities, conducted each year by purple martin “landlords.” In Columbia County, purple martin colonies are a rare sight, with one major exception: Amish farms.

Amish landlords in the Dalton/Kingston area, near the junction of Columbia, Green Lake, and Marquette Counties, are a prime example of how proper management and stewardship can make all the difference for the success of this species. Amish communities throughout the country have strong cultural ties to the purple martin, with many establishing gourds and nest boxes simply because their families have hosted martins for generations. In mid July a team of Madison Audubon Society purple martin enthusiasts, including Mark and Sue-Foote Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary Managers; Maddie Dumas, Goose Pond Land Steward; Brenna Marsicek, Director of Communications; Toft Wells, Board Member, and his granddaughter Annie; Arlene Koziol, Madison Audubon volunteer and photographer; Goose Pond interns, and WSO president Michael John Jaeger, and myself set out to take inventory and band martin chicks. Photos of the banding effort by Arlene Koziol are available on her Flickr account.

  Dick Nickolai (blue denim) shows Annie, granddaughter of MAS board member Topf Wells (orange), how bands fit around the legs of purple martin chicks. Photo by Arlene Koziol.

Dick Nickolai (blue denim) shows Annie, granddaughter of MAS board member Topf Wells (orange), how bands fit around the legs of purple martin chicks. Photo by Arlene Koziol.

Leading this endeavor was retired Wisconsin DNR Wildlife Biologist Dick Nikolai, who now spends much of his time traveling throughout the state banding purple martins on behalf of the Wisconsin Purple Martin Association. Dick has been involved in purple martin conservation for over thirty years and has banded at over 20,000 martins to date. Dick is also providing guidance to my study. To say that Dick is an expert on purple martin breeding and behavior would be an understatement!

About 35 Amish farms and businesses in the area have at least one purple martin nest box, with some families erecting as many as seven nest boxes, each one offering fourteen cavities for pairs to build their nests (commonly referred to as a T14 nest box).  One Amish family makes and sells T14 boxes and poles.  Some families also hang hollowed-out gourds for nesting, which were historically used by Native Americans before European settlement in North America.

  Two purple martin chicks from the same brood are distinctly different in size. Photo by Arlene Koziol.

Two purple martin chicks from the same brood are distinctly different in size. Photo by Arlene Koziol.

Over the course of two days, at just six colony locations, the purple martin team was able to band 838 chicks, as well as one female adult. Such large colonies, some with over 60 pairs of martins, are likely the result of the strong relationship that the Amish families have with their birds. Many families take pride in their large colonies and consider it a family affair to check their nests weekly, by providing suitable nesting materials, removing invasive house sparrow nests, and cleaning out excess waste. The Amish children often take particular interest in monitoring the nest progression and can provide plenty of details on the status of each nest box. Each family that was visited by the team was more than happy to allow, and often assist, the banding efforts. As one Amish landlord remarked, “we love the purple martins and the purple martins love us!”

If you would like to see purple martins visit the Amish community, where even many of the businesses maintain purple martin nest boxes which are easy to see from parking lots and the road.  Martins will be present for a couple more weeks before moving to staging areas before heading to Brazil. You could begin at the Columbia – Marquette County line.  Go north of Pardeeville on Highway 22 to the County line where County CM goes to the west while Barry Road goes east.  Take a right on Barry Road.  A good place to stop is Michler’s County Store and pick up a map of the Amish community. The map has the location of 50 Amish businesses including a number of bakeries, green houses, and furniture shops.  There are also families that sell garden produce.

  One of the Amish farms hosting gourds for purple martin nesting. Photo by Arlene Koziol.

One of the Amish farms hosting gourds for purple martin nesting. Photo by Arlene Koziol.

By Erin Manlick, Masters Candidate, Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies