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Posted 11/6/2013

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By Erica Skolte

Along the Okeechobee Waterway, the return of the Purple Martins is one of the much-anticipated annual rites of spring. Corps volunteers have worked hard over the years to attract these delightful birds to Corps recreation areas for the enjoyment of all.

All year round, Corps volunteers along the Okeechobee Waterway contribute their talents, creativity, resourcefulness and handyman skills in a variety of projects. They have constructed bird feeders, duck houses, bird houses, and other projects to provide wildlife habitat. During the annual “Take Pride Day” events along the Okeechobee Waterway, the Corps and volunteers often partner with local businesses, which donated materials and labor. Volunteers and park rangers taught “Take Pride Day” participants to build the projects, and some had the opportunity to take them home to benefit the wildlife in the area.

Creative volunteers constructed several Purple Martin “palaces,” using mostly recycled lumber, bottles, bolts and other found materials. The palaces are like miniature Purple Martin “condos,” each with 12 bedrooms. They were placed high atop poles at Corps facilities along the Okeechobee Waterway, including W.P. Franklin Recreation Area in Alva, Ortona Recreation Area in Moore Haven and St. Lucie Recreation Area in Stuart. This time of year, volunteers are cleaning and refurbishing the Purple Martin houses, readying them for the return of the beloved birds.

The Purple Martins that come to Florida make a long and arduous trek from Brazil, traveling the Florida Keys flyway and up the east coast. Scouts begin to come into the area in mid- to late January to choose nesting sites, and larger colonies choose nesting sites and settle in by mid- to late February. Incubation of three to eight white eggs occurs in about 16 days, and 26 to 31 days after hatching, the young fledge and leave the nest. By the time summer’s heat arrives in June, the colonies head back to Brazil.

Why are these birdhouses so important? Purple Martins make their nests in cavities, either natural or artificial. Historically, they nested in old snags or pine trees, but available habitat has been drastically reduced and they must compete with aggressive European-introduced starlings and house sparrows for nesting spots. They are colonial nesters in the eastern United States, where they are almost entirely dependent on man-made birdhouses. In addition to the Purple Martin houses, some people put up real or artificial hollow gourds as houses. Some use special baffles to keep snakes, hawks, owls and other predators away from nests containing eggs or young.

Like the other members of the swallow family, Purple Martins are aerial insectivores. They eat only insects, and contrary to popular belief, they do not help control the mosquito population. They do eat a few mosquitoes, but their favorite treat is dragonflies, as they get more nutrition from the larger insects relative to the amount of energy expended to hunt them. Martins will not eat from a bird feeder, nor will they land and drink from a birdbath. They eat, drink and bathe on the wing. If you see a large group of birds swooping down into a canal or other fresh water, it may be a colony of Purple Martins. The fresh open waters of the Okeechobee Waterway make Corps recreation areas attractive places for Martins to nest and raise their young.

How can you identify a Purple Martin? The showy adult male has a unique, glossy purple sheen to its feathers, with black wings and tail. As is true of most bird species, the adult female is not as colorful and has pale under parts.

Campers, the general public and bird watchers enjoy viewing birds and other wildlife at the recreation areas, and the Purple Martins are a special treat for all. Thanks to the Corps volunteers who help make it possible for this species to reproduce and survive, and for us to enjoy them!

Caloosahatchee Jacksonville District LaBelle migration nest Okeechobee Waterway Ortona Purple Martin st. lucie U.S. Army Corps of Engineers volunteer W.P. Franklin