Mike Jacobs is always in season: Purple Martins poses a birding conundrum – Grand Fox Herald

Big Forks – Purple Martins have replaced barn swallows as my daily bird. Barn swallows are prominent in our area near Gilby, ND, as purple martins are in some parts of Grand Forks.

These species are similar in many ways, but should not be confused. Martin is the largest member of the swallow family. Like the barn swallow, it’s a glowing purple, but it doesn’t have the salmon and buff trim that marks the barn swallow. Both species have forked tails. The barn swallow’s tail feathers make up at least one-third of its body length, giving the bird an aerodynamic appearance. Purple martins appear bulkier because their tails are shorter and make up a much smaller proportion of the bird’s body length.

Barn Swallows and Purple Martins are excellent trapeze. In fact, it is difficult to track their flight movements. Based on observations this year, I think individual purple martins may be more common than individual barn swallows, but both are social species and both are friendly people. In fact, almost both species nest on man-made structures.

This is not always the case. Purple Martins are secondary hole nesters. In other words, they go into holes created by other species. Before around 1900, that meant woodpecker holes, but Martins embraced the houses humans built for them. John James Audubon remarked in the 1830s that there is hardly a country inn without a purple Martin’s house.

These birds definitely endeared themselves to European immigrants. Today, there are at least two international organizations working to increase the number of purple martins.

As it turns out, Martin confused me. I see these birds frequently on my walks on the Red River Greenway between 47th Avenue and the Elmwood access point, most commonly at the Sunbeam Trail entrance and in greatest numbers. There was a Martin House there, and most of the time I passed by, there was quite a flock of birds, maybe 40 or more. But on other days, there are no birds at all, although I see individual martins, or small groups of martins, almost every day. There’s also a Martin House at the 47th Avenue entrance, but it didn’t have that many birds until early August, when suddenly one morning the air seemed to be filled with Martins.

My guess is that Sunbeam martins are hatching and may be jumping out of their nests to socialize or feed. I think those at the 47th Avenue entrance might be prospectors, maybe thinking about building new homes for the next nesting season. Both Martin houses are in great locations. Martins likes open skies close to the water, in this case the Red River.

Martins isn’t limited to these houses. For several years, a small group of Martins has been established in the canopy of the Devils Lake gas station. A storm damaged the station and the Martins did not re-establish the colony.

Like other swallows, the Purple Martin Swallow travels in flocks for the fall migration. Often, these species cluster together. Purple Martin still has a long way to go. They escape the northern winters by moving to South America.

Their journey is about to begin. Most swallows will be gone by the end of August, although some will persist into September—until frost kills the insects they depend on.

My birding buddy Charlie Christianson had what could be called a “perfect” result last weekend. He saw seven species of woodpeckers, all to be expected in our area.

Christianson and Mary Wakefield have a retreat on the south bank of Devil’s Lake near Mount White Horse. This is a wooded area that provides a good habitat for woodpeckers, and the habitat is diverse enough to attract species that occupy different habitats.

And, of course, the furry woodpecker. These two very similar species are not very common, but they appear in nearly every wood, no matter how small or spaced apart. Red-headed woodpeckers are less common, but more conspicuous. This also applies to piles of woodpeckers – as the saying goes “spades”. A red-bellied woodpecker also showed up. This species is a relatively new species in our region, having migrated from the southeast. The Devil’s Lake area may be as far north and west as where the species occurs. Finally, two “anomalous species” appeared, the yellow-bellied suckers and the northern flashers. These are members of the woodpecker family, but their behavior is quite different from other woodpecker species.

Maybe I can achieve this “perfection” if I start doing it, but I don’t want to encounter all seven species of woodpeckers in one place in one day.

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of The Herald. Contact him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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