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Spirit of Jefferson Farmers Advocate
Charles Town, West Virginia
March 7, 2018     Spirit of Jefferson Farmers Advocate
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March 7, 2018

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PAGE AIO Wednesday March 7, 2018 NEWS SPI.RI'.I of JEFFERSON and FARMER'S ADVOCATE DOUG PIFER For over 20 years my wife and I have wanted purple martins to nest where we lived. We bought books about attracting martins. I set up a wooden three-story purple martin house with the proper measurements and studied the best places to attract the birds. I made white painted gourd houses, hung them from a telescop- ing pole the proper height above the ground, and installed a baffle to deter climbing raccoons and other preda- tors. I measured the site's distance from large trees and from our house. I even carved and painted realistic martin decoys which I put up each year. I bought a CD recording of the dawn song of purple martins and played it from April till July from 5 until 8 in the morning. We watched and waited as house wrens, tree swallows and bluebirds successfully nested in our martin house. A colo- ny of eight bluebirds even roosted in our wooden martin house all winter. But no martins. Sometimes three or four mar- tins would show up. They would call out loudly, circle lazily around the house or gourd rack, or hov- er in front of it. They sat in the up- per branches in a dead tree nearby, checking things out. But they nei- ther stayed nor even landed on the house! Each year we held our breath as the martins would come, circle around and then leave. Something didn't suit them. In 2016 we bought a historic red brick farmhouse a mile or so from the Potomac River with a barn, woods, a spring-fed stream and five acres of pasture. After we moved in I bought a new aluminum four-tiered mar- tin house and put it up the following March. I set up a couple of decoys. Fi- nally, one May morning three purple mart'ms appeared. They came every day but seemed to shy away from the decoys. After I swallowed my pride and took my decoys down, four pur- ple martins came back, hung around for an hour or so and then left. They repeated this daily routine until the end of July but never nested or stayed overnight. Bruce Johnson, then owner of Wild Birds Unlimited, Inc. in Win- chester, Va assured me they would return to nest the next year. Bruce was right! I put up the mar- tin house in the same spot and around the first of May four purple martins came. With much excitement and loud chirping they circled around and entered all the nest chambers. In early June, three out of eight cham- bers contained active nests. By sum- mer's end all three nests had pro- duced baby martins - not bad for a first-year colony. The first brood fledged at the end of June and the last one left near the end of August. MAINTAINING A COLONY Maintaining a martin colony re- quires a firm, long time commit- ment from the landlord. Many folks are much more actively involved than I was last summer. They check the nests regularly during the breed- ing season, examining nestlings for parasite infestations and when necessary replacing their nests and dusting the babies with insecticide. I only lowered the house on the telescoping pole and opened the chamber to check the nests once. I hated disturbing the birds, especial- ly because they all seemed to be just fine without my interference. Here are things I learned last sum- mer about purple martins: 1. Purple martins aren't in a hurry to do anything. 2. Martins re/tuire lots of clear, open space around housing. 3. Activi- ty around the nest is generally in early to mid-morning. 4. Martins spend much of the day away from their nests, even when feeding young. 5. If you have house sparrows around, martins won't nest. Buy and use a sparrow trap. 6. Get the half-moon shaped en- trances for your houses to discour- age starlings. 7. Not all martins choose the same material for their nests. 8. You don't have to monitor mar- tins as closely as some people do. 9. Martins capture and feed their young many large flying insects like dragonflies and cicadas. 10. Young martins may not re- turn to the house to roost after they fledge. 11. First-year males look much like the gray-breasted females but can breed as successfully as older "purple" males. 12. Martin housing should have a nesting chamber larger than 6 inch-. es by 6 inches. 13. Gourds used for martin hous- ing should be at least 12 inches in diameter. 14. Trust martins and don't get excited if they don't do what you think they should do. 15. If you do everything fight but don't get martins right away, be pa- tient! When I took down the martin house to clean and put .it away for the winter, I examined the three well-used nests the martins made. At the Pifer home in Shepherdstown, the Purple Martins were worth the wait. Each nest was a shallow cup ofand contained some dried mud plant material lined with fresh green and about a dozen fingernail-sized leaves plucked from trees. Yet each freshwater clam shells, evidently was uniquely constructed according gathered from the banks of nearby to the preference of the builders. Rocky Marsh Run. One nest was composed exclu- I can't wait for them to come back sively of small dried rootlet ro- this spring! settes of short grasses plucked from the ground. Another was made of -Doug Pifer writes monthly 4 -inch long hay stems. The third for the Spirit of Jefferson from his nest consisted of short, dead twigs home in Shepherdstown I I < ,