Apr 18 2014
This week’s weather was like a yo-yo — summer last weekend, winter mid-week, spring today. The cold was annoying to us but potentially fatal to purple martins who migrated from Brazil and arrived in western Pennsylvania 2-3 weeks ago.
Purple martins feed exclusively on flying insects but when temperatures stay below 50F or it’s extremely windy, constantly raining, or dense fog, insects don’t fly. After more than two days of this, purple martins weaken and starve.
Members of the Purple Martin Conservation Association remember the awful purple martin die-off when Hurricane Agnes lingered over western Pennsylvania in August 1972. It took more than 30 years for purple martins to come back to our area.
In the past purple martin landlords felt helpless as they watched their colonies weaken and die. In the 1990′s Ed Donath trained his martins to eat non-traditional food but that required training time during good weather. Then during a cold spell in April 2000 Ken Kostka and Andy Troyer figured out an emergency feeding strategy: toss live crickets in the air. At first the purple martins idly watched the airborne objects. Then they recognized the crickets as insects and made the connection “flying+insects”=food. The martins feasted and the colony was saved.
The home video above by Larry Melcher shows how it’s done. After the martins have learned to recognize the crickets as food, the bugs can be placed on a high tray on the colony and the martins will eat them even though they’re not flying.
Landlords have experimented with other foods. Years ago Bird Man Mel in Missouri tossed live mealworms so his colony now recognizes mealworms as food and will eat them from the front porch trays (click here for his video).
On Wednesday birders Dick Nugent and Debbie Kalbfleisch visited a purple martin colony in Butler County where the landlord was feeding his colony scrambled eggs! Here’s a video with the scrambled egg recipe.
Purple martin landlords love their birds. They start feeding crickets, then let them eat eggs.
(videos from YouTube)