Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Martians Are Back! The Martians Are Back!

Years ago, while jogging on a trail near my home, a young woman came running toward me, shrieking "the martians are back, the martians are back!" Honestly, I did not expect to be confronted with Tim Burton's melon-headed green men. In fact, she even had the bird species wrong (the Barn Swallows had returned to nest under our bridge over our jogging trail; the Purple Martins had come back weeks before).

January is when we expect to see the first Purple Martins return to the Texas coast. These are the risk takers, the adult "scouts" who have forsaken the comforts of South America (such as Brazil) to risk a late cold snap here in Texas. The Purple Martin Conservation Association's scout arrival study has already received reports of 74 returning martins this 2009 season.

Interestingly, these early arriving "scouts" are not scouts at all. These are older adult males that have successfully nested in the past and are returning to the same nesting sites where they raised young the previous year. The scouts (unpaired birds without traditional nesting sites) will return weeks later.

The Purple Martin is a portal species, one that allows us easy entry into the natural world. Martins readily take to nest boxes (although martins in the west still primarily nest in natural cavities). Even Native Americans attracted martins to their habitations by providing empty gourds as nesting cavities. Once birds are attracted to a "martin house," people are able to watch and experience the entire breeding cycle of the birds from the comfort of their own yards. These Purple Martins become "their" Purple Martins.

Why do people go to such great lengths to attract martins to their yards? A new study from the University of Alberta reports that volunteers who take part in such conservation efforts (providing nesting habitat) may do it more for themselves than the wildlife they are trying to protect.

A study of purple martin landlords revealed that they were more motivated to take part in the conservation project for egoistic rather than altruistic reasons.

"Though there were areas of overlap, we found that common motivations for self-benefit included interaction with the birds, a sense of achievement, social interaction, personal stimulation and enjoyment," said Glen Hvenegaard, a co-author on the qualitative study and a professor of geography and environmental studies at the University of Alberta's Augustana campus in Canada.

Whatever the reason, ego or generosity, the martins are back!

Ted Eubanks

For more information about Purple Martins, consult the following websites:

The Purple Martin Conservation Society

The Purple Martin Society of North America

All About Birds (Purple Martin)

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