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Mike Jacobs Always in Season: Purple martins present a birding puzzle

The martin is the largest member of the swallow family. Like the barn swallow, it is a luminescent purple in color, but it lacks the salmon and buff trim that marks barn swallows.

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Purple martin.
Illustration/Mike Jacobs
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    Mike Jacobs.
    Tom Stromme

    GRAND FORKS – The purple martin has replaced the barn swallow as my everyday bird. Barn swallows were conspicuous at our place near Gilby, N.D., as purple martins are in some parts of Grand Forks.

    The species are similar in many ways, but they shouldn’t be confused. The martin is the largest member of the swallow family. Like the barn swallow, it is a luminescent purple in color, but it lacks the salmon and buff trim that marks barn swallows. Both species have forked tails. The barn swallow’s tail feathers make up at least a third of its body length, giving the bird an aerodynamic look. Purple martins appear blockier, because their tails are shorter and make up much less of the bird’s body length.

    Barn swallows and purple martins are superb aerialists. It’s difficult to track their in-flight maneuvers, in fact. Based on this year’s observations, I’d reckon that individual purple martins might be encountered more often than individual barn swallows, but both are social species, and both are people friendly. In fact, both species nest almost exclusively on manmade structures..

    This wasn’t always the case. Purple martins are secondary hole nesters. In other words, they move into holes that other species have created. Before 1900 – or so – this meant woodpecker holes, but martins took readily to houses that humans built for them. John James Audubon remarked in the 1830s that hardly a country inn was without a purple martin house.

    The birds definitely caught the fancy of immigrant Euopeans. Today, there are at least two international organizations dedicated to increasing the purple martin population.


    The first reference I found to house finches in the Herald’s online archive was in 1989, when Milt Sather called about a house finch he’d seen in Greenbush, Minn. The column about the sighting was printed Nov. 2 that year.

    The martins have proved a puzzlement to me. I see the birds frequently on my walks along the Red River Greenway, between the 47th Avenue and Elmwood access points, most often, and in the greatest numbers at the Sunbeam Trail access. There’s a martin house there, and most times I passed, there were sizable flocks of the birds, perhaps 40 or more. But on other days, there were no birds at all, although I saw individual martins, or small groups of martins, nearly every day. There’s a martin house at the 47th Avenue access point, too, but it didn’t have as many birds until early August, when suddenly one morning, the air seemed full of martins.

    My guess is that the Sunbeam martins were incubating and perhaps popped out of their nests to socialize or to feed. Those at the 47th Avenue access, I'm thinking, might have been prospectors, perhaps considering new quarters for the next nesting season. Both of these martin houses are well situated. Martins like open sky near water, in this case the Red River.

    Martins are not limited to these houses. For several years, a small colony of martins was established in the canopy of a gas station in Devils Lake. A wind storm damaged the station and the martins did not re-establish the colony.

    Like other swallows, purple martins get together in large flocks for fall migration. Often, the species flock together. Purple martins have a long journey ahead. They escape the northern winters by moving to South America.

    Their journey will begin soon. Most swallows will be gone by the end of August, although some linger into September – until frost kills off the insects they depend upon for sustenance.


    My birding buddy, Charlie Christianson, achieved what might be called a “perfecta” last weekend. He saw seven species of woodpeckers, all that can be expected in our area.

    Christianson and Mary Wakefield have a retreat on the south shore of Devils Lake, near White Horse Hill. This is a wooded area that provides good habitat for woodpeckers, and habitat varied enough to attract species that occupy different habitat niches.

    There were downy and hairy woodpeckers, of course. These two very similar species are not quite ubiquitous, but they occur in almost every grove of trees, however small or spaced out. The red-headed woodpecker is much less common but much more conspicuous. This applies to the pileated woodpecker, as well – “in spades,” as the saying goes. A red-bellied woodpecker showed up, too. This species is a relative newcomer in our area, moving in from the southeast. The Devils Lake area is probably about as far north and west as this species occurs. Finally, two “outlier species” showed up, the yellow-bellied sapsucker and the northern flicker. These are members of the woodpecker clan, but their behavior is quite different from that of the other woodpecker species.


    Maybe I could achieve this “perfecta” if I set out to do it, but I wouldn’t expect to encounter all seven of the woodpecker species in one place in one day.

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

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