Marquette riverfront property attracts purple martin tenants

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Dan Beck (left) and Laurie and Dennis Mason are landlords to a growing population of purple martins on the Marquette riverfront. They are pictured with one of the houses. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

Purple martins are native songbirds and the largest bird in the swallow family.

They eat insects and are most active in the early morning and early evening.

All the purple martin houses sit atop tall poles, which the Masons and Dan regularly lower to monitor the birds and maintain the numbered compartments against predators and parasites.

Dennis said the ability to raise and lower houses is key. Without maintenance and supervision, sparrows and starlings will attempt to take over the nests, driving away purple martins and even killing the young. Larger birds, along with raccoons and snakes, can also predatorize purple martin nests. These Marquette “landlords” have installed predator guards on the house poles—the shiny, silver metal preventing other critters from gaining purchase and crawling up to the nests.

Fourteen to 16 pair of the birds, along with nearly 40 babies (recently hatched or still eggs), have now taken up residence in one of two white, multi-compartment houses on the Marquette riverfront.

Purple martins are social birds and nest in colonies. The don't mind the human activity on the riverfront, and have become almost solely dependent on humans for their housing.

The riverfront is now a purple martin sanctuary. Dennis was able to erect this signage and an all-gourd "apartment complex" thanks to funds from the Marquette Action Club.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

A series of “apartments” on Marquette’s riverfront are attracting a growing number of tenants—but not of the human variety. The area has become a sanctuary to purple martin birds, thanks to the efforts of several community members.

“When I was a kid on the west bench of Marquette, an old railroad man had purple martins. That’s where the interest started,” said resident Dennis Mason, who helped establish housing for the birds with wife Laurie and friend Dan Beck, from Elkader. “I’ve been trying for 30 years at home to get them. I gathered information from other enthusiasts and I moved it around, but couldn’t get any to stay.”

That’s when it dawned on him: purple martins prefer areas where they can easily soar and glide in and out of their houses.

“So I asked to put some on the riverfront,” Dennis said.

The first two attempts, ship- and lighthouse-shaped houses constructed by Luster Heights inmates when the prison camp was still in operation, didn’t work as well as planned. The cavities were not deep enough, Dennis explained.

The largest bird in the swallow family, purple martins traditionally nested in natural cavities. 

“They were tree nesters,” Dan said. “West of the Rockies, they live in cactuses.”

But thousands of years ago, humans began offering housing in the form of dried, hollow gourds. According to Dennis, Native Americans placed the gourds around their camps and villages.

“I don’t know if it was for insect control, or if it was spiritual or for the music,” said Dennis. “Now, the birds rely almost entirely on human beings.”

Purple martins are native songbirds. Over the years, the Masons have become attuned to their distinctive call, which Dennis described as “gurgly and gravelly.” They also have a “dawn song.”

“The males will sing and fly above the colony to attract other birds in,” Dan detailed.

Adult male purple martins have dark black, blue and purple plumage—almost iridescent, Mason noted. The subadult males have many solid purple feathers either on their chins, throats, bellies or undertails, but will not get full plumage until their third year. Adult females have some purple on their heads, but not their chest, belly or undertail, which is more brown and gray. Subadult females have a lighter purple to brown color on their back feathers, with all-white undertails or light-colored feathers with brown pinstripes down the center.

Purple martins are social birds, and don’t mind the human activity on the riverfront. They are most active in the early morning and early evening. 

They also nest in colonies. Fourteen to 16 pair of the birds, along with nearly 40 babies (recently hatched or still eggs), have now taken up residence in one of two white, multi-compartment houses. Each house has several white gourds hanging beneath it, providing additional living quarters. 

With funds from the Marquette Action Club, Dennis recently put up an all-gourd “apartment complex,” in the hopes of attracting even more purple martins next year.

“The gourds are bigger, independent compartments,” Dan remarked. “They like the depth and the safety.”

All the houses sit atop tall poles, which the Masons and Dan regularly lower to check on the birds and maintain the numbered compartments against predators and parasites.

“There are a number to inventory,” Laurie shared.

“We hope to monitor how many birds survive,” Dennis added.

Dennis said the ability to raise and lower houses is key. Without maintenance and supervision, sparrows and starlings will attempt to take over the nests, driving away purple martins and even killing the young.

Larger birds, along with raccoons and snakes, can also predatorize purple martin nests. Dan said the birds build mud dams by the compartment holes, to keep out predators, but that’s often not enough. These Marquette “landlords” have installed predator guards on the house poles—the shiny, silver metal preventing other critters from gaining purchase and crawling up to the nests.

For these same reasons, Dan said it’s important to erect purple martin houses away from trees.

“To a purple martin, trees often mean danger. There are hawks and owls that want to wreak havoc,” he stated. “Once a house is predatorized, [the birds] will be gone and won’t come back.”

If that wasn’t enough, parasites can also pose a threat. When they lower the houses, Dan and Dennis spray the nests to keep mites away.

Purple martins winter in Brazil, then return to North America around April 1. Adults will often come back to the same nesting sites. The subadults will go to nearby nests they were introduced to the previous year, in their parents’ attempt to prevent in-breeding.

Dan said the birds’ early spring arrival can be problematic.

“If we have snow yet, they’ll die,” he explained, because there aren’t enough insects to eat.

This year’s irregular spring has the birds about two weeks behind schedule, he estimated.

Purple martins have one hatch of four to seven eggs each year, around this time. Most other birds have two hatches. By August, they’ll head back to South America.

“They fly around 5,000 miles to Brazil, which is quite a feat,” Dennis said.

Unfortunately, travel can lead them right into hurricanes, which can wipe out large numbers of birds.

With all of these threats, Dan and the Masons said human help is important for purple martin survival.

“Fifty years ago, they were common. All the towns had them,” Dan shared. “Now, a lot of people don’t know what purple martins are.”

“They’re in decline,” Dennis added. “We hope to get more hatching and get more in northeast Iowa. And the more humans assist in housing, the better.”

Dennis is appreciative of the support the city of Marquette and the Action Club have given to the project. He, Laurie and Dan encourage others to put up houses and are willing to share their knowledge with those who are interested.

“People have so many opportunities to get birds, and they’re just a pleasant bird to have around,” said Dan. “It’s a pleasure to be a part of this. It’s a lot of fun.”

“It’s another attraction for Marquette, plus it’s a benefit for the birds,” Dennis stated. “I hope other people come to appreciate them and want to get involved in supporting their community.”

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