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February 2009 cover image of Davis Mountains State Park

Wild Thing : Purple People Lovers

Living in gourds and manmade houses, the purple martin enjoys the company of humans.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Come February, Gisela Fregoe’s out the door, anxiously scanning the skies for scouts. “I always hear our purple martins before I see them,” says the Grand Prairie birdwatcher.

Contrary to popular belief, those aren’t true “scouts” but simply the first martins to migrate north from their winter home in Brazil. Over the next two to six weeks, the rest arrive, find a mate, and choose a nesting cavity. Then nest building begins.

East of the Rocky Mountains, purple martins (Progne subis) — the largest member of the swallow family — depend on houses and gourds (natural and artificial) put up by devoted “landlords” like Fregoe. The practice dates back to Native Americans, who hung hollow gourds around their campsites, likely because martins scared away critters that went after the tribe’s crops and meats. Likewise, the presence of humans discouraged predators from raiding martin nests. To this day, martins still prefer to live near people.

Martins — who yearly return to the same site — build nests of mud, twigs, straw and other materials, then top  it with a layer of green leaves. When little ones fledge, martins from the area turn out for the big event, creating quite a ruckus. Typically, everyone gathers in huge communal roosts in July before returning to Brazil.

Though voracious insectivores, martins don’t eat as many mosquitoes as once thought. They prefer larger prey — including butterflies, wasps, dragonflies, moths and beetles — caught on the wing way up in the air (mosquitoes stick close to the ground). If you’d like more information on purple martins and how to become a “landlord,” check out the Purple Martin Conservation Association at www.purplemartin.org.

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