Purple Martins Set to Invade Forest Park

Mar 11, 2009 at 12:33 pm
click to enlarge Purple Martins in Steinberg Meadow - Forest Park - John Miller
John Miller
Purple Martins in Steinberg Meadow - Forest Park
After a long schlep from South America, the first adult male Purple Martins should be alighting in Forest Park any day now. You might be interested in this species of songbird (Progne subis) for the following reasons:

1) If humans don't prepare nesting houses for them, they'll die out. According to the Purple Martin Conservation Association's Web site, the birds' 100 percent dependence on people dates back to the Native Americans. (Check out the site's history page for more on that.)

2) The speed at which they migrate up here from South America is way, way faster than previously thought. A recent study described in National Geographic showed a female making the trip from the Amazon Basin to Pennsylvania in 13 days -- that's an average of 358 miles a day (previous estimates had them flying at about 93 miles a day).

3) As "aerial insectivores" -- sounds bad-ass, eh? -- Purple Martins pluck from the air lots of critters that people tend to not like very much: wasps, flies, moths, junebugs, and flying ants (though not mosquitoes, as some maintain).

But the most important news of all? Purple Martins denote the coming of spring and a few of the birds have already been spotted near St. Louis. 

The Missouri Department of Conservation reports that the a few Purple Martins have made their way to southern Missouri, and the agency expects a big wave of the birds to arrive in the next few weeks.

Some say I'm purple. I say I'm Martin. - www.purplemartin.org
Some say I'm purple. I say I'm Martin.
John Miller of Brentwood -- perhaps St. Louis' most enthused amateur enthusiast of the songbird -- has set up Purple Martin colonies in a few places you could visit: the Missouri Botanical Garden, Cahokia Mounds, and a couple different sites in Forest Park: Wildlife Island (between the Boathouse and Art Hill) and Steinberg Meadow (near the ice rink).

If you've seen them there before, you may see the same ones again because these birds show a high degree of "site fidelity" (meaning they migrate back to the same exact spot).

Miller reports a kind of friendly contest going on right now between him and Chris Feree, a Forest Park Forever nature reserve technician, over who will be the first to spot a Purple Martin.

But what the Daily RFT wanted to know was, why does Miller care so much?

"These birds get under your skin," Miller explains. "They're expert fliers, and they seem to have a lot of personality and a joy about them. Perhaps we shouldn't attribute human characteristics to animals, but when they land on that house in the spring, they seem to be thrilled to be back."