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Purple martins return to Kentucky for spring

By Bernheim

Source: Kentucky Standard
By Kacie Goode
April 11, 2019

The birds are back in town.

<div class="source">KACIE GOODE/The Kentucky Standard</div><div class="image-desc">Purple martins roam around their colony at Bernheim Tuesday afternoon. Man-made structures are crucial to the birds' survival.</div><div class="buy-pic"><a href="/photo_select/102383">Buy this photo</a></div>

KACIE GOODE/The Kentucky Standard
Purple martins roam around their colony at Bernheim Tuesday afternoon. Man-made structures are crucial to the birds’ survival.
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As the sun began to set Wednesday afternoon, a large flock of purple martins could be seen swooping down to catch insects before settling back into their pre-built colonies. The birds began arriving in the area last month, returning from their winter in Brazil.

“The first ones I noticed this year came in the last Thursday in March,” said Jim Scout of Bloomfield, a volunteer naturalist who has been maintaining the martin colonies at Bernheim Forest for about three years.

“Humans over the course of several hundred years have trained the birds not to nest in natural cavities like they used to,” Scout said, which is why the manmade houses are crucial to the native songbirds’ survival, and those who provide the homes can often count on the birds’ arrival like clockwork each year.

In the eastern part of the U.S. in particular, the purple martin population nests almost exclusively in human-supplied homes. The songbirds are secondary cavity nesters, which means they do not create their own nests but instead look for existing homes created by humans or other animals.

According to the Purple Martin Conservation Association, the birds used to nest in existing natural cavities in old trees or rock formations, but over time became accustomed to the manmade housing of dried and hollow gourds that were provided for them by humans.

A few of the manmade homes can be found at Bernheim as well as across Nelson County, with some residents in this area serving as “landlords” to ensure the martins have a place to stay while in town.

Scout said the birds will begin their nesting activities soon, and he will likely start seeing eggs the first week of May and hatching around June.

“Once they hatch, it only takes about four weeks before they look like little mini adults are ready to fly and start hunting on their own,” Scout said.

In the fall, the flocks will begin gathering and heading back to Brazil, where they will spend the winter.

While the purple martin season has already begun, Scout said those interested in providing homes for them may still have time to attract some new arrivals this week, and the more people helping out, the better off the birds will be in the future.

“If you don’t get them in the first season, don’t give up,” he said and have the homes ready for next year.

When they are not being used by the purple martins, Scout said the homes should be closed up to prevent another bird species from nesting there. Opening the homes just before the purple martins’ arrival next spring and providing some nesting materials inside them to look lived in should help attract some “new tenants.”

Providing a home for the birds and watching them in general, Scout said, can be a great hobby.

“Once people have a chance to watch them, they get hooked,” he said. “They are beautiful birds, very musical and they eat a ton of insects, which is an added benefit.”

To learn more about purple martins, conservation and housing, visit purplemartin.org.

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