Mother Earth News Almanac: A Guide Through the Seasons (Voyageur Press, 2016), by the MOTHER EARTH NEWS staff is a collection of helpful information and advice to living a self-sufficient lifestyle. The book provides fun and practical ideas on topics such as raising animals, canning, making compost, and more! The following excerpt is from Chapter 2, “Spring.”
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Purple martins are among the most effective natural insect controls known, and North Americans have long had an affinity for these handsome birds. Resourceful Native Americans were already attracting martins with nesting sites made from hollowed-out gourds when the first white settlers arrived on the continent, and the European immigrants soon adopted the practice. Today, specially constructed, multicompartment purple martin houses are familiar fixtures in many farming communities.
Martins are the largest members of the swallow family and feed exclusively on airborne bugs — if it doesn’t fly, they don’t recognize it as food. On a daily basis, these birds consume close to their own body weight in food, and a four-ounce purple martin could — conceivably — eat 14,000 mosquitoes in one twenty-four-hour period. These efficient insect catchers do not limit themselves to such an exclusive diet, however. Although martins do devour more than their share of mosquitoes every day, they also feast on flies, beetles, moths, and many other airborne pests at the same time.
Before European settlers changed eastern North America from a heavily forested wilderness to neatly manicured farms and cities, the purple martin often nested in dead trees and hollow stumps. As such habitat was cleared, the population of this valuable bird declined until it reached an all-time low — probably sometime in the early 1960s. Thanks, though, to (1) a renewed interest in natural pest controls and (2) some dramatically improved martin house designs, the giant swallow’s numbers are once again increasing at a satisfying rate.
Purple martins are gregarious, nest in colonies, and are easily attracted to areas with even large human populations. If you live east of the Rockies and your town or farm has an insect problem it could well pay you to put up several houses for these birds.
Build a Martin House
Although we now know that they are far from ideal living quarters, gourds are commonly used as purple martin houses in the South. If you’d like to try this traditional design:
- Get some bottle gourds (or grow your own), let them dry, and cut a single opening (about 2-1/8 to 2-1/2 inches in diameter) in the side of each.
- Shake out the seeds and bore a smaller hole (large enough for the insertion of a wire) through the narrow end of every dried shell just under the stem.
- Next find a good, stout pole long enough and heavy enough to be firmly set in the earth to support crosspieces at least 8 feet above the ground.
- Add more arms higher up the pole if possible — the sky’s the limit for purple martins — then wire the gourds securely to the horizontal supports and wait for your new tenants.
As nice and traditional as gourd houses may be, though, they’re hard to clean, and baby martins have been known to die from lack of ventilation in such apartments. Sooner or later — if you become a real, sure-enough purple martin enthusiast — you’ll probably want to build or buy one of the compartment houses that experience and research have proven to be superior to the gourd designs.
Each room in a martin complex should be about 6 inches square and have its own 2-1/8-inch entrance hole. A 2-foot-square house, divided into nine cubes (with the floor cut out of the center section to turn it into an air shaft), makes an eight-compartment martin domicile that is practical and easy to build. The sides or roof of the structure should be removable for handiest cleaning and eviction of unwanted occupants. Wood is fine for such a house and, surprisingly, aluminum (which is impervious to mites and other bird parasites) is even better.
Purple martins winter in Brazil and begin appearing in Florida in late January. By April the birds have arrived in the northern states and Canada. You should figure on having your martin quarters set up well before the swallows are due in your area. Remember to place the house or houses at least 8 feet off the ground on a metal pole or wooden support equipped with a metal guard (to keep predators from climbing to the nests).
If your living quarters are to their liking, chances are good that some martins will move right in the very first spring. If they don’t, however, don’t be disappointed. It may take as long as three or four years before your colony is established, but once it’s a going operation, the swallows will return season after season after season.
English sparrows and starlings often try to take over martin houses, and you may have to remove such birds’ nests from your swallow quarters on a regular basis until they get the idea that they aren’t wanted. You’ll also find it easier to reserve your martin house for martins if you close the structure or take it down for the winter.
Yes, there’s a little bit of labor involved in attracting and maintaining a colony of purple martins but, at the rate of 14,000 mosquitoes a day, the little insect catchers will more than repay you for your trouble.
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Excerpted from Mother Earth News Almanac (Voyageur Press, 2016) by the MOTHER EARTH NEWS staff, used with permission from Voyageur Press, 2016. Original text and illustrations © Ogden Publications.