Monday, July 28, 2014

Banding Purple Martins

Dale and I found ourselves enjoying a rare treat earlier this month.  We volunteered to help band baby purple martins.  So what is a purple martin? …. a little bird; a large swallow; North America’s largest swallow.

I grew up in central Wisconsin where purple martins were relative common.  If you live east of the Mississippi river, near some open country, have plenty of insects, and put up a communal purple martin house, you are apt to become the proud landlords to a bevy of purple martins. In the east martins are seldom found nesting in a natural cavity.   They are encouraged by people because they consume so many small insects, including lots and lots of mosquitoes.  It is always a happy sound to stand beneath a busy colony, full of chittering and frequent trips by the martins to and from the nests.  

Out here in the West I’ve never seen an occupied purple martin house like the ones so popular in the East.  Here  they still nest in natural cavities and are much less common.  When we moved to Douglas County, Oregon over thirty years ago I don’t remember any mention of purple martins; but apparently there were a few in the area.  I didn’t see any here until dedicated volunteers started hanging artificial nests in suitable habitat.  Here they use an old trick learned from American Indians.  The Indians hung gourds for the martins;  our volunteers hang several plastic gourds on a pole.  Once a year the gourds are cleaned out, preparing them for the next nesting season, and, in early summer, the babies are banded.  

Mid July Marnie Albritten invited Dale and me to help band purple martins at Cooper’s Creek Reservoir, Douglas County.  Marnie is a retired Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, and dedicated purple martin volunteer.  The upper end of the reservoir has a pleasant meadow plus an extensive marshy area. One pole stands out in the meadow.  It is designed to hold six gourds, but unfortunately one gourd had been stolen, obviously stolen because the thieves didn’t know how to properly pull the rest of the gourds back up.  At least they culprits had done a good enough job so that the remaining five gourds were all occupied.  
We arrived about 8 AM and worked quickly so our disturbance would be over with a soon as possible.  First the whole rack of gourds is lowered and each hole is covered with a temporary plug as quickly as possible so any babies near fledging can’t pop out prematurely.  Sometimes the simpliest equipment is the best.  Each hole is filled with a Dixie cup to which has been attached a long, red string.  The string is there to pull the cups out when the gourds are pulled back up in the air.  
Each gourd also has a large cap screwed on …. large enough for me to put my hand in.  I was chief grabber and holder of baby birds, Dale photographed, and Marnie aged, banded and took notes.  I’ve held a fair number of baby birds in my lifetime.  Kestrels are frantic pin cushions, ducklings wiggle and squirm, but these guys felt like a warm handful of quiet silly putty.  I was glad they are quiet because at this age they are covered with pin feathers.  The pin feathers are still growing and can easily be injured.  
One after another I picked up each nestling, Marnie banded and I temporarily put the 'done' ones in a towel lined bucket so I didn’t have to figure out which baby was banded and which one needed banding.  When each nest was done we put the nestlings back in their gourd and turned to the next.  
Three gourds still had eggs.  Two gourds had babies …. 10 nestlings as I remember.  The nestlings varied from 10 to 13 days old — no where near ready to fly.  Since they were so young we could remove the Dixie cup immediately rather than waiting until the nests were pulled back up.  
When done banding, Marnie hauled the rack of five nests back up the pole and we walked off a short distance.  Chittering and scolding the adults were soon swirling around the gourds. Some had food in their mouth; some were ready to go right back into their nest.

Back at the car we had one more fascinating encounter … and a good thing we had a professional biologist with us.  A fuzzy burnt orange ant came running across the parking lot.  I figured it was probably a velvet ant, the first Dale and I have found. I wanted it to stop running long enough for a picture and was about to stop it with my hands.  Marnie knew all too well what it was, and knew it has a nasty bite.  We decided and little prudence was in order and that we’d treat the ant with a little more respect.  While I blocked the ant’s path with my shoe, Dale clicked away. 

When I got home and looked up velvet ants I found one of their colloquial names is “Cow Killer.”  Ouch! They don’t really kill cows, but are well known for their painful bite.  I’m glad Marnie was along.


  1. What a fun thing to do Elva. I would be afraid of hurting them. But how cool to feel them in your hand. I thought that was a bee when I looked at the ant. Good thing you didn't try to touch it.,ouch is right.

  2. Elva, thank you for this lovely blog. Your baby green herons made my day! I go back to them for a daily smile.
    I used to see velvet ants when I lived in the Sierras -- some gold and some electric red -- but haven't seen any here in Oregon before. I seem to remember learning that they were actually wasps?

    1. Oh my gosh! You are correct. I didn't realize a 'velvet ant' is actually a wingless, female wasp. No wonder their bite is nasty.