Purple Martins and Thieves

Purple Marin—Progne subis (male)

True hope is swift, and flies with swallows wings.William Shakespeare (1564-1616)


On the southern Oregon Coast, in Historic Old Town Florence, a brick path led from Bay Street to a small courtyard carpeted with pink blossoms. The path then led to an observation deck overlooking the Siuslaw River; named for the Siuslaw People or “Shaiyuushtla” that dwelled here 8,000 years ago, and whose children live today. Spanning the river was the historic Siuslaw River Bridge with its Gothic piers that opened in 1936, replacing the Ferry Landing.

Blossom Path
Historic 1937 Mapleton Depot

The river that often reflected a Royal blue sky, was dulled by the clouds. Downriver, just past the bridge, the spruce-pine forest gave-way to sand dunes. Slack tide was over, and the river was now on its way to the sea 4.4 miles away. Harbor seals bobbed in the current waiting for the fishing boats to return. Gulls circled, slicing the air with angled wings. The riverbed, now visible, was a haven of living things. A crow landed among the pilings picking crustaceans out of the mud. I love the look of pilings in bays and rivers, and these pilings were extra special because they provided a place for purple martin houses—eight houses in all.

Purple Martin male keeping watch

More often than not, I’m either too early, or too late to see the martins, but this time they were home. I spent nearly an hour with them. Over the river they flew darting every-which-way on slender, pointed wings with precision flight to and from their nests. They flew with such agility that my eyes could hardly keep up with them. Only when they landed, could I marvel at their beauty. Those dear little faces that always look so serious.

Purple Martin female

The purple martin, Progne subis, is North Americas largest swallow. Males have dark purple, glossy feathers, and females wear more gray than purple, but are no less beautiful. They arrive from South America in springtime. Males arrive ahead of the females to establish territories. Purple martins typically raise one brood per season. In the wild west, they build their nests in old tree cavities often made by woodpeckers. They will also build nests in martin houses and gourds specifically designed for them—the more the better! They like their nests close to or directly above a water source—lakes, bays, large rivers, and estuaries. It is said that one purple martin can consume 2,000 mosquitoes per day! Yet, despite this abundant food source, purple martin numbers are declining in the West, partly, if not entirely, because of the European starling.

Purple Martins come and go (female left, male right)
Purple Martins (male above, female below)
Purple Martins (male above, female below)

Males and females took turns watching over their broods, and sometimes they left them unguarded. Every martin house entrance was equipped with a thin, metal plate to discourage starlings; every house except one. Dried grasses spilled onto a small porch through the unprotected door. It was clear that both parents were off hunting insects, and it would cost them dearly. A starling had been watching, and waiting, and when the coast was clear, the starling flew straight for the martin house. His bold actions indicated he’d done this before. He quickly ducked inside, and then exited with a pink, hairless, nestling (about the size of a large grub) clamped in his yellow beak.

The house that was robbed

I watched helplessly as the starling flew off with its small victim. Near the scene of the crime the starling landed on a piling where it proceeded to jab the baby martin, and devoured it. Just then, the parents returned. Instinctively, they knew they’d been robbed. Panicked and agitated, and with much chirping, the martins circled, and swooped while the starling ate their nestling, and ignored them completely. Sadly, none of the nestlings from this brood survived. 

Feeling I had to do something, I contacted the Florence Chamber of Commerce, and explained what had happened, and that the martin house needed to be mended. They assured me that they would get someone on it right away.


Copyright 2017.  All rights reserved.

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