John Schneider, owner of C&J Meats in Knox Township, Ohio, started housing purple martins — the largest type of swallow — in 1973. Donovan Curfman, owner-operator of Homeworth Feed and Grain, visited Schneider as a kid and learned from him.
“He helped take my birdhouses down and clean them when he was younger,” Schneider said.
Now that Curfman has his own farm and family in Knox Township, it has almost become a competition as who can house — and hatch — the most birds.
He has five houses with 78 “holes,” where a pair of purple martins can nest and hatch between two and six eggs. He had 39 nesting pairs last year that produced 108 babies.
Schneider is way ahead of him with eight (soon to be nine) houses and 112 holes. But he doesn’t seem to care if he eventually loses to his protege in the purple martin propagation department.
There also seemed to be a competition as the martins flocked to the houses on a chilly but sunny evening. It was hard to tell which were louder, the real birds or the recorded ones.
Curfman has a solar-powered speaker with an option for “purple martins only” that attracts the birds. The singers are the “scouts,” or males 3 years and older, that are the first to arrive from their winter homes in Central and South America, Curfman explained.
They come back to the same houses every year — almost to the day — and then sing to attract mates.
When the females arrive, it is they who choose and fight for a mate. The pair then immediately starts to build a nest, using corn stalks, sticks, soybean stubble, cherry tree leaves, etc. “The coarser the better,” Curfman said.
When they lay eggs seems to depend on the weather, Schneider said. Sometimes it’s mid-June, other years they wait till July. The eggs take 17 days to hatch, with the parents taking turns sitting.
Learning to fly
When they are 3 weeks to a month old, the fledglings test their wings. Over his three decades of martin watching, Schneider has often seen babies fly too low, only to have the parents fly under and “bump” them up to a higher altitude. With their short, wobbly legs, the babies wouldn’t last long on the ground, he said.
He’s also watched parents teach the babies to catch their own food. Like other swallows and songbirds, the purple martin’s diet consists mainly of insects. But for this species, it seems the bigger the bug, the better. They especially love dragonflies.
“I’ve seen the mom drop a dragonfly so the babies can learn to catch it. If the babies miss, she’ll swoop down and catch it,” Schneider said. “They’re really smart, and really good parents.”
As evidenced by the crowds around Curfman’s five houses, purple martins are not good at social distancing. “They like to be around other birds,” Curfman said. “They even like people,” Schneider added.
They probably really like him. He buys live crickets, freezes them, and then thaws them when he’s ready to feed the martins. He does that by putting two or three on a plastic spoon, and then flicking them into the air for the birds to catch. The aerial acrobatics go on until it’s time to start the migration south.
Curfman says the babies and their parents leave as a family, along with other birds. It seems like the ones that hatched earliest start leaving in mid-August, while later hatches might wait till mid-September, he said.
He has learned from interactive maps on purplemartins.org that the birds meet in groups of thousands — which can be seen on radar — before making the long trip south, as many as 3,5000 to 4,000 miles.
One group coming from Canada meets in Ashtabula County. A parking lot in Texas hosts a cloud of purple martins that gather before crossing the Gulf of Mexico. “That’s hurricane season, so it has to be nerve-racking,” Curfman said. “Mom, dad and babies all fly together.”
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology site, allaboutbirds.org, lists purple martin populations as “declining” in Ohio and the Midwest, and in the southeastern United States. It makes Curfman and Schneider happy to think they have helped add to the purple martin population by putting up housing.
Turns out you can’t put a Purple Martin house just anywhere. If it’s too close to trees, buildings or feeders for other birds, you won’t have any tenants moving in. And provisions must be made so that predators especially owls — cannot get to the babies.
Both the houses Curfman has built himself, and the ones he has purchased from Twin Oaks Barns in Dundee, for which Schneider is a distributor, have smaller nest boxes inside each “apartment.” That leaves a gap between the door and the nest that the parents sometimes fill with a mud wall, just in case.
Curfman also installs metal cables and cranks to raise and lower the houses. That makes it easy to clean them and check on the babies once a week — until they’re three weeks old and might decide to fly out.
If anyone else wants to join the purple martin competition, both Curfman and Schneider say they are willing to help. Plenty of websites and Facebook pages like Purple Martin Landlords and Wannabes provide housing plans and advice.
STAY INFORMED. SIGN UP!
Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!