Purple Martins On Bird Houses

‘Beautiful noise’: These Bellevue birds are bound for Brazil

In this July 9, 2019 photo, purple martins congregate at their nests in Bellevue State Park near Wilmington, Del. In a few weeks, young Purple Martin birds will be strong enough to begin a journey from Delaware to South America for the winter. (William Bretzger /The News Journal via AP) (Associated Press)

By William Bretzger | AP

WILMINGTON, Del. — The sound of the summer for Charles Shattuck isn’t waves crashing on the beach or the droning buzz of cicadas.

It’s purple martins.

“The chatter of a colony of birds, the chortling, the chirping, the whistling, the clicking,” Shattuck said, looking up at the bird nests in Bellevue State Park, the air around them full of sleek purple martins. “They make so much noise: This is the music of summer for me.”

Shattuck and his wife Kathy, owners of Wild Birds Unlimited in Hockessin, donated and installed 24 gourd nests at the park and watch over their success. Located in a wide clearing near the park’s pond in the middle of a former horse track, the spot is ideal for the birds, Charles Shattuck said.

He had seen an existing, neglected nest in the park fail to thrive. Purple martins long ago became dependent on human-made structures to nest. An aging plywood version at Bellevue was not working as well as he knew the species-specific nests would.

Standing under the clusters of nests, Shattuck beamed as he ran off the numbers of the colony he established.

He counted 21 nestlings the first year he set up the gourds, 58 in 2018 and this count: 95, just shy of the triple digits he was hoping for. Falling short didn’t diminish his enthusiasm.

The reward for him will increase when he returns in a few days and those young birds will be joining the adults outside the nests. “You come back someday, there will be so many birds here,” he said.

In a few weeks, those young will be strong enough to begin a journey to South America for the winter, mostly landing in Brazil. They’ll backtrack and begin arriving in North America again in the spring, most returning to find summer homes close to where they began.

Shattuck and Ian Stewart of the Delaware Nature Society were working to corral and tag all those young birds.

Stewart, an ornithologist, deftly pulled the sometimes-squawking young birds out of cloth bags after they were picked from the nests by Shattuck. With a technique practiced hundreds of times, he quickly and painlessly crimped the light metal tags around the birds’ wiry legs. Not too loose, not too tight.

“Every one of these nestlings now has a numbered aluminum band on its leg, so if they get recaptured we find out information about how long these birds are living, how much they move around, how faithful they are to their colonies,” Stewart said. “Purple martins are a very popular bird now, to have these colonies, so there is a network of banders catching the adults and banding the nestlings, so we’ve got a pretty good probability of someone capturing some of our birds today.”

The pair welcomed onlookers, educating them about the birds and recruiting them to hold the bird bags and shuttle them between the nests and the impromptu banding station.

Stewart turned one of the fledglings over exposing its belly, fat from a steady diet of dragonflies and other flying insects. “You can see through the lining of their skin, all their organs,” he said, “the liver, intestines, it’s amazing.”

One thing they don’t eat, he said, is mosquitoes.

“Originally, people pushed purple martins as a way of controlling mosquitoes. So people were encouraged to put up purple martin houses,” Stewart said. “We now find out that they don’t eat mosquitoes at all. But they will keep down house flies and annoying little gnats around your house, there is a lot of benefits to having them around.”

“Plus, they are just such beautiful birds; they are very vocal,” Stewart said. “They are constantly chirping away. It’s a very happy sort of sound and they like being around humans.”

Some of these young birds were about ready to leave the nests, so Shattuck stuffed rags in the openings to make sure they didn’t get away until the birds were collected and tagged.

With the nests at nearly full occupancy, Shattuck soon ran out of rags. Pressed for material to cover one last nest, he slipped the handkerchief he had been wearing off his head and into a nest opening it went: keeping the birds in the nest was more important than keeping the sun off his head.

Shattuck discovered fishing line tangled around one nestling’s leg and freed the bird.

It had inadvertently been collected as nesting from the nearby pond, where fishing is popular.

“Take care of your line,” Shattuck said, immediately finding another strand in a different nest, parts of the tackle still attached. That sort of housecleaning is the reason, he said, human-tended nests yield more birds than ones left to nature.

At least one of the adults lounging over the nests already had a band. On a return trip the banders will try to capture it long enough to read the tag and identify its origin and other information, they said.

And all through the tagging procedure the birds overhead kept up their steady soundtrack.

“When this goes silent in a few weeks, it’s just a whole different feeling out here. It’s eerie,” Shattuck said. “It’s a lot of noise but it’s beautiful noise.”

Shattuck screwed the cap onto one of the last nests after returning the young purple martins and their new bands.

“Well guys, have a safe trip to Brazil,” he said. “Show off your jewelry to your friends.”

This article has information from this article published in The News Journal on July 7, 2019. The above article originally appeared in The Washington Post on July 26, 2019.