Martins are gregarious birds and enjoy each other’s company. (Submitted Photo/John K. Flores)
January is the month to start preparing for martin arrival
Like most people, Mrs. Flores and I have our New Year’s resolutions that typically includes getting back to exercise and a better diet. And, also like most people, we usually do pretty good early on, only to backslide later in the year.
She and I are both seasonal creatures, where we are more apt to be conscientious about preparing her flower garden and getting the purple martin house ready for visitors, the latter being high on our January list of things to do.
In George H. Lowery Jr.’s book, “Louisiana Birds – 3rd Edition,” Lowery notes that by the first week of February purple martins have pretty much arrived along the Gulf Coast. Additionally, more often than not, by late January it’s not uncommon to see an advance guard of martins scouting around looking at the available real estate.
Purple martins are the largest of the swallow species of birds that also include barn, cliff, bank and tree swallows. They are a gregarious bird and enjoy the company of each other. Put another way, martins like to be with other martins.
They are also beneficial to humans as they help control mosquito, beetle, fly and moth populations.
One of the first things Christine and I do in January is clean out the martin house. Ours is a telescoping aluminum pole, where the house can be easily lowered. There are two schools out there in the blogosphere — those who clean and don’t clean.
We clean, because the grass, leaf and cypress needle matter tend to be mildewed and could possibly contain parasites. Though we don’t go to the extreme of using a one-part bleach and nine-part water solution to sanitize the nest box, some do.
Our martin house is approximately 18 feet above the ground and has four nest boxes or cavities for martins to raise their brood in. The recommended minimum height for martin houses is 10 to 15 feet.
At this height, purple martins feel comfortable and safe from predators like cats and dogs. Trust me, if you’ve ever squirrel hunted with a Jack Russell terrier then you know how high these dogs can get up a tree trunk with a running start.
I also had a lab that wreaked havoc on every bird that ever tried to nest in our yard. She literally would jump up into the branches of a tree and knock the nests out. There were several afternoons I was greeted after work with a wet, soggy, munched on mocking bird, martin or thrasher. All I could say was, “good girl,” since I trained her to chase ducks and game birds.
It’s also recommended to place your martin house 30 to 40 feet from large trees and structures in your yard. However, I’ve seen way too many martin houses at far lesser distances for this to be problematic. The key takeaway from this particular rule of thumb is to use common sense.
If the house is too close to a shed, it may be within a cat’s leaping distance. A tree may provide a perfect perch for hawks.
Finally, I also lower our purple martin house each January to inspect it for any needed repairs. Louisiana weather can be rough on these nest boxes, where it doesn’t hurt to do a little maintenance annually.
Some people like to use gourds, both natural and plastic-shaped, for their martin houses. The ancestry for using gourds as martin houses can be traced back to native Americans. Though gourds are pretty much a single-family dwelling, by clustering several together provides the same effect as a multi-unit martin house.
Perhaps the biggest enemies of purple martins are sparrows and starlings. Both of these species compete with martins for nest locations. As much as I’ve tried each year, never has my martin house been completely occupied by martins. Usually sparrows, who fight viciously, will occupy one or more nest boxes.
One of things you can do temporarily in order to keep sparrows and starlings out of the nest boxes is plug the entrance holes. Purple martins tend to nest and lay their eggs in April, May and June. Therefore, you can afford to wait a few weeks without worrying if your house will be occupied.
Lastly, martin houses can be purchased from most feed stores, hardware stores or online. But, if you’re like I am and enjoy woodworking, it can be more rewarding building your own house.
No matter how you shape your purple martin house, make sure your nest boxes are approximately six inches by six inches in width and depth and approximately 12 inches in height. The entrance hole should be between 1¾ inches and 2¼ inches in diameter.
With our guests scheduled to arrive in just a few weeks, Mrs. Flores and I will be getting the lodge ready this month. Barring any repairs, it shouldn’t take long for us to be open for business.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Flores is The Daily Review's Outdoor Editor. If you wish to make a comment or have an anecdote, recipe or story you wish to share, you can contact John K. Flores by calling (985) 395-5586 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by messaging Facebook at Gowiththe Flo Outdoors.