Managing a Purple Martin Colony in Alberta

There are a number things that a landlord should do to keep a healthy and happy Purple Martin colony going.

First of all is Sparrow and Starling control. As I mention on the S&S control pages, it is so important to keep your housing 100% free of these two species of birds. You must have 0 tolerance if you want your colony to thrive. Just tearing out the Sparrow nests is not good enough, as the English House Sparrow will take revenge by entering a Martins nest in another compartment, and destroy it. They then rebuild their own nest over the Martins nest. When I remove a Sparrow nest I always place an insert trap into the compartment and place part of the nest with the eggs in the trap. You will get them every time if you do this. If you remove the nest totally, they usually won't enter the insert trap.

Many people get tired of fighting the Sparrows so they will plug off all the unoccupied compartments in the house. This is not a good idea, as the young bachelor sub adult males like to use these compartments to roost in at night and play in during the day. If you want your colony to grow, you must leave at least a few unoccupied compartments open all through the nesting season. If the Sparrows are driving you nuts, I recommend using 3 or 4 insert traps in the empty compartments until you trap them all.

Secondly, whether you are just starting a new colony, or have an existing colony, use the McEwen crescent shaped Starling Resistant Entrance Holes (SREH) on your housing. A few of the old time landlords may try and tell you that the Martins won't enter them. This information is totally false, and anyone that tells you this has never given the SREH a try. I have been using them for a number of years now at my colony sites, they work perfectly for controlling the Starlings and the Martins not only enter them, but when given a choice, they prefer them to the old round entrances. The females know that they are safe from the Starlings, so they use them. They are also safe from Hawks, Magpies and Owls, as they are unable to reach into the compartment and pull out the Martins as they did with the old round entrances.

I have started many new colonies using total SREH, the Martins have adapted to them so easily. Far more easily than many landlords have. The SREH are used a lot in the USA, so our northern martins use them on the migration up each spring, as they will roost in Martin houses all along their migration if bad weather occurs. So if you have any doubt, come for a drive with me some day, and I will prove to you how successful these entrances are.

Check nests
Click on picture for larger version
Third, is to do regular 5 day nest checks. The Martins do not mind you lowering the house and checking the nests. They may get a bit upset at first, but they soon learn that you mean no harm and settle down, you can handle the eggs or nestlings if need be as well, they will not abandon them. It is best to do the nest checks in late afternoon or early evening. Do them when you get home from work, Martins are very active around the houses in the morning, so I like to leave them alone and just enjoy them in the mornings. Also it is not recommended to do nest checks during cold weather as the Martins are usually huddled inside to conserve energy. So I always wait for a warmer day if possible. If you do regular nest checks, you will know exactly what is going on inside the house, and you will know right away if there is a problem of any kind. You will raise far more healthy nestlings by doing regular nest checks.

Always look for nest parasites when doing your nest checks. Mites and blow fly larvae seem to be much worse in hot and/or humid weather. Once the Martin nestlings hatch, adult blow flies often will enter the nest compartment and lay their eggs in the nest material. In just a few days the eggs hatch and turn into larvae (maggots). Blow fly larvae are a grey coloured maggot found in the nest material and sometimes attached to the nestlings. During the night is when they like to attach them selves to the nestlings, sucking blood for nourishment to grow into adult blow flies. If the numbers of larvae (maggots) are high, they will cause severe stress to the nestlings and they can kill them. You should check for blow fly larvae when the nestlings are about 7 days old and again every 5 days or so after. It is important to remember that blow fly eggs can hatch and grow to the larvae stag in just 2 or 3 days. Most times you must dig deep in the nest under the nestlings to find the larvae, the first sign I look for is when the green leaves start to turn a dark rotten colour, dig under the leaves with a pencil and you will find them. As I stated earlier blow fly larvae seem to be worse in hot weather ( the black fly season) so always check for them.

Check nests
New parasite free nest
Click on picture for larger version
At 12 days old the nestlings are developing their feathers, this is the perfect time to do a nest change if you haven't already. This is where the slide out nest trays in my housing really shines over other styles of houses. I always have extra clean nest trays on hand with the Styrofoam (blue or pink) sub floors in them. Once the nestlings develop feathers they no longer need nest material to keep warm. The Styrofoam sub floor is nice and warm and supplies good traction for their feet. You can simply remove the nestlings from their old nest, check and remove any blow fly maggots from their bodies, then place them into the new parasite free nest tray with the Styrofoam sub floor. You may want to add a few green leaves as seen in the picture. Your nest change is now complete...... it just that easy.

If mites are present, believe me you will know it. Your arms will itch like crazy. Martin Mites are a tiny little red coloured bug. You can see them crawling all over the walls of the house and compartment. Simply spray the walls and floor of the compartment (not the nest tray) with SEVEN garden spray (5% Carbaryl) and the mites will die, it doesn't take much. ( I prefer the spray over the powder form of SEVEN..... no dust). Then slide the clean parasite free nest tray with the nestlings into the compartment, and your nest change is complete. The nestlings will again be healthy, happy and ready to grow.

Don't worry....... the parents will resume feeding the nestlings just minutes after you raise the house, they will not abandon them. Just make sure you don't wait too long to do the nest checks and nest changes. Try to do this when the nestlings are 10 to 14 days of age if you can. Nestlings 21 days or older are too old to be handled, they could fledge prematurely if you touch them. You can check on them by opening the front door slowly, they will scramble to the back of the compartment and hide, just don't touch them.

click on picture for larger version
Finally, I thought I would mention a bit on winterizing your Martin housing. By late August the Martins Are leaving Alberta to head back south to Brazil. I recommend leaving the housing up until the Labor day holiday weekend. This is a good time to lower your housing down for the winter, and clean it up. Your house maybe crawling with Martin Mites at this time. I like to mix up a batch of 5% Seven garden or (poultry) spray at this time, and give the house a good spray down, I found Seven works excellent for killing the mites and even works right through to the next season. I do not use Seven in the nests when the Martins are present, I wait until I know they are no longer returning to the house in the evenings. But I don't wait too long either, or the mites will start crawling down the pole and will over winter in the ground. The following spring they climb back up the pole and into the house. I like to spray my houses by late August or the Sept 1 Labor day weekend at the latest.

It is ok to leave the old nests in the house for the Martins to use next year if the nest is in reasonably good condition. If the nest is in poor shape I like to clean it out good and then replace it with a new nest as seen on the Attracting Martins page on this web site. If you don't want to use Seven, then I recommend cleaning the house out well and wipe it down with rubbing alcohol. Then rebuild all the nests in the spring for them.

Never leave your Martin house in the raised position and the entrance holes open over winter. The entrance holes should always be plugged in the fall. I leave all my houses down over winter and I have nice white fitted covers made for them to protect them from the harsh winter weather.

I hope this information helps you to manage your colony site better, it's basically what I do to manage mine and has worked good for me so far.

-- Information and plans on the North Star Martin House --
-- Information on the Buskas Bungalow --
-- Attracting Purple Martins to your Colony --
-- Supplemental Feeding of your Purple Martins --
-- Starling and Sparrow Control --
-- See Map to Northern Sky's and Country 9 --
-- Back to the Northern Sky's Purple Martin Colony --

Bob Buskas
R.R.2 Wetaskiwin
Alberta, Canada
T9A 1W9

Phone: (780) 352-2783
Northern Sky's Purple Martin Colony
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