Purple martins love to be around people. East of the Rockies their housing is 100% man-made. But any tenant sets certain boundaries for their landlord, and when disturbed they have plenty to say.
When they say it en masse, the sound is almost electric. Not whistling, really; not chattering, like some high atonal piece pulled out of a 1980s synth pop song — a high, bouncing, twuu twee tw-twe-tw twuu-twuu, effect that repeats, twists and varies endlessly in volume.
The 130-some adult and sub-adult purple martins that live among 103 nesting cavities above the sweeping green lawn below Anita Harp’s home in the hills of Sand Springs above Keystone Lake had plenty to talk about Sunday. Their landlord was inspecting all the nests and pulling out youngsters out to meet a stranger who waited under the covered porch above the lawn, a pair of pliers in his hand.
Tim Mangan, a federally licensed bird bander and purple martin enthusiast from Pittsburg, Kansas, was in town to affix tiny hardware to each leg of 50 of the young, just a portion of this season’s offspring. A blue federal band went on one leg, a gold local band on the other —a little ’80s bracelet bling to match the sound, perhaps.
Madonna would have approved.
“We banded 50 birds today, 40 last year,” Harp said. “This is the most I’ve ever had. Last year I had 24 active nests, and this year it’s 60, so it’s really grown.”
Harp, a consultant for Dell, keeps meticulous records of her birds on color-coded spread sheets. Each of the 103 nesting cavities is labeled with mailbox-style letters with a letter-number code, and she checks each cavity twice a week whether she thinks it has birds in it or not.
“They’ve laid 305 eggs and 170 hatched as of two days ago,” Harp said.
All of her martin houses are on raised poles she can lower to the ground by crank and cable, either hand-operated or with an electric drill. As she lowers the tower, the birds take off and fly around, talking back from the sky.
She collected the birds one nest at a time and knew the histories of each as she handed them over to Mangan. There was the one whose parents tried to feed it carpenter ants and ended up with the ants biting and not letting go of its face and neck. Then there were the two from the nest of seven left to a single young male after the female was killed. She transferred them from their original nest to another pair.
“It was a pair that looked like they were doing a good job of feeding,” she said. “I don’t think he would have been able to handle all of them on his own.”
“They look healthy,” Mangan said.
“It’s something we try not to do unless it’s necessary, but the other adults will feed all the mouths in their nest,” Mangan said of moving nestlings from one cavity to another.
Harp’s colony is impressive in size, but he said he’s seen bigger.
“I banded one in Louisiana that is one of the largest in the country, had something like 350 pairs,” he said.
Birds are banded between 12 and 22 days of age, he said. The eggs incubate for 16 days, and the young fledge and leave the nest 26-32 days later. At 12 days, they’re just large enough to band. After 22 days, that taste of independence from the nest might lead them to leave a little too early.
“We call them jumpers,” Harp said.
Banding and keeping a colony and being active with the Purple Martin Conservation Association and the Association of Field Ornithologists are after-retirement hobbies for Mangan, who worked for AT&T in St. Louis.
He used to fish at Lake Ouachita in Arkansas every day and often stopped at a purple martin house to watch the friendly birds that didn’t mind his presence.
“I got interested in it and put up a house at our own home (in Hot Springs) and it got martins, and then I really got into it and wanted to do more studying,” he said.
He found a sponsor to train him in bird banding in 2007 and gained his own master license in 2012. He and his wife moved to Pittsburg in 2013. He maintains a colony there that typically houses 40-50 pairs and he bands birds throughout the region.
All of his returns on federal bands are reported to the U.S. Department of Interior Bird Banding Laboratory. His local bands are yellow and have black letters and numbers and are easier to read by someone looking at a bird with binoculars or a spotting scope, he said.
Bird banding is a decades-old practice that helps in the study and tracking of bird movements and population trends. Martins nest across the United States and into Canada, but winter in Brazil.
The percentage of banded birds that returns each year is relatively small. Only two of the 40 banded at Harp’s colony last year returned, but Mangan said most first-year birds don’t return to the same colony as a built-in strategy to maintain genetic diversity. However, most will return to an area within about 50 miles. The thrill of the return and watching the martins never diminishes, he said.
“It’s amazing to band them and then next year you look out and there is one of the birds you banded that has gone down to Brazil for the winter and returned,” he said.