Once threatened, purple martins make a comeback


Through the conservation efforts of the Connecticut Audubon Society and others, plus some awareness-raising by talk show host Phil Donahue, a rare bird in the state – the purple martin – was removed from the threatened species list not long ago.

Purple martin numbers have risen, and previously unknown nesting colonies have been discovered. These large swallows, which only eat insects that they catch while on the wing, are completely dependent on man-made nesting areas in Connecticut, Audubon officials said. One of the most successful colonies is at the Connecticut Audubon Society’s Coastal Center at Milford Point, a colony that arrived in Milford in 2015 when Phil Donahue moved his colony of birds here.

Connecticut Audubon staff, along with staff and volunteers from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), were at the Audubon in Milford Thursday going through each of the dozens of nests at the Coastal Center and putting identifying leg bands on about 100 newly-hatched babies, part of a long-term effort to accumulate data about the birds’ habits and whereabouts.

Each bird was removed, carried carefully to a table under a canopy, weighed and measured, fitted with a tiny plastic leg band, and then put back in its nest.

“We have a fairly large purple martin colony here,” said Tom Andersen, director of communications for the Connecticut Audubon Society.

“Every year the state DEEP, with our help, puts bands on each of the birds, weighs them and measures them and records the data,” Andersen said. “The data is useful if the birds are captured later: it provides valuable information on growth, what the migratory patterns are, what their survival rates are.”

Laurie Fortin, DEEP wildlife biologist, said there are between 75 and 100 baby birds, or nestlings, at the Milford colony, and 15 to 20 colonies in the state. The volunteers and DEEP are tagging the state’s newborn birds with different color bands to identify where they came from. The Milford Audubon birds are wearing yellow bands.

The banding session was set up assembly-line style, and containers were marked so that each baby went back into the nest it was taken from.
This colony
The colony of birds at the Audubon in Milford originated in Westport at the home of Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas.

For more than a decade, Donahue maintained a colony of purple martins at his home, according to a Connecticut Audubon website.

“Phil solicited our help, and each spring we would work with him to make sure the gourds were clean and ready to go,” Audubon officials say on their website. “We’d monitor the success of the nests throughout the season. And in fall, after the martins had migrated, we’d help clear them and prepare them for the next year.”

When Donahue and Thomas moved from Westport, they asked their friends at the Audubon — primarily Milan Bull, the Audubon’s senior director of science and conservation — if they would take over the colony and move it to Milford Point, which they did in 2015.
The birds

According to Purplemartin.org, purple martins (Progne subis) are the largest member of the swallow family in North America, measuring 7.5 inches long and weighing 1.9 ounces.

Three races are recognized: Progne subis subis, breeding in eastern North America and eastern Mexico; Progne subis hesperia, breeding in the deserts of Arizona, western Mexico, and Baja California; and Progne subis arboricola, breeding along the Pacific coast of the United States and Canada, and in the Rocky Mountains.

“Purple martins spend the non-breeding season in Brazil then migrate to North America to nest,” according to Purplemartin.org. “East of the Rockies they are totally dependent on human-supplied housing. West of the Rockies and in the deserts they largely nest in their ancestral ways, in abandoned woodpecker nest cavities. In the Pacific Northwest, martins are beginning to use gourds and clusters of single-unit boxes for nesting.”

Local Audubon officials said that thanks in part to the publicity Donahue’s birds generated, individuals, nonprofit organizations and government agencies erected more nest boxes and gourds.

They also credit Donahue with setting up a live-streaming system at the Milford colony so people can get a closeup and real-time look at the purple martins, including video from inside one of the nests. Viewers can see them when they arrive, and watch their daily activity.

The Milford colony is at the north edge of the Wheeler salt marsh. The birds usually arrive here toward the end of the first week in April. They will remain through August with a few lingering into the third week in September.

Andersen praised the work of all involved in saving the purple martin.

“It’s a bird that if we want it around, we have to do whatever we can to keep it around,” Andersen said.
(See the Milford birds live at http://www.ctaudubon.org/purple-martins/#sthash.BeOCGkXZ.uGMEld0R.dpuf.)