Purple martins fly 4000 miles to Schiller St. apartment

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Five purple martins keep a watchful eye on the camera from their apartment on Schiller Street in Guttenberg. (Press photo by Molly Moser)

By Molly Moser

Long-time River Park Drive business owner Barbara (Kann) Leitgen brought a request to last month’s park board meeting. She presented plans for a purple martin house, one she’d like to see in the park across from her building on the 500 block of South River Park Drive. 

“There seem to be less and less purple martins, like the bees and butterflies, and we don’t really know why,” she said. Leitgen first became interested in the birds while living in Brazil in the 1970s. “While in Brazil my husband caught an article in the Brazil Herald on the purple martins and their migration to the Amazon,” Leitgen recalls. “So when we returned from living in different places overseas we remembered those purple martins and wanted a piece of Brazil to remember.” 

Purple martins are the largest member of the swallow family in North America, weighing 1.9 ozs. and measuring about 7.5 inches. Males are dark, glossy blue-black while females and young birds are duller above and grayish below. They are aerial insectivores, meaning they eat only flying insects caught during daytime flight, including dragonflies, flies, mayflies, Japanese beetles, butterflies, moths, cicadas, bees, wasps, flying ants, and others. 

The birds migrate over 4000 miles from Brazil each year to nest in North America with their monogamous partners. West of the Rocky Mountains, purple martins nest in abandoned woodpecker nest cavities. East of the Rockies, they are dependent on housing in gourds or nesting boxes provided by humans. 

Martins prefer housing placed in the center of the most open spot available, at least 30 feet from human housing. According to The Purple Martin Conservation Association (PMCA), there should be no trees taller than the martin housing within 40 feet and preferably 60 feet. Generally, the farther the housing is placed from trees, the better, and boat docks make ideal housing locations. Housing should be painted white to best attract purple martins.

At active sites, the same martins usually return within two weeks of the previous years’ arrival dates. Native nest competitors like Eastern bluebirds, tree swallows, great crested flycatchers and house wrens may show an interest in martin houses and gourds, so the PMCA  recommends having boxes and gourds up early for these desirable birds, and if necessary, briefly closing martin housing to help "steer" these birds into the appropriate nesting places until martins arrive. 

The Leitgens installed a purple martin house in the yard when they lived in their apartment building across the street from the office of The Guttenberg Press. Their son, Steve, was 11 years old and enjoyed helping his parents build the house. “We purchased a metal aluminum house and built it together,” Leitgen remembers. “We also purchased a telescoping pole in three sections, attached the house to the top section and hoisted the sections up with the house on the top.”

The excitement began as soon as martins moved in. “We could watch them from our kitchen table so when the martins began to chatter we had conversation too, wondering what they were chattering about,” Leitgen told The Press. “The fun part is watching those fledglings take off for the first time. They live in that little apartment area and when it's time to go they have to know how to take off and fly! Mom and pop martin can be seen watching the fledglings get ready, and you can see them urging them on.”

Visitors to the Leitgen household got to know the martins as well. “We didn't have much of a porch up there years ago on that brick building, only a single stairway down. I would go out the door upstairs and watch them all the way down the stairway. When they built the larger porch on, my biggest worry was that the carpenters would scare the martins away. But the carpenters ended up watching and commenting on them also,” Leitgen recalls. “The martins chatter so much.”

At last month’s park board meeting, Leitgen offered to purchase, install, and maintain the martin house across from her business. Whether or not the city decides to allow private individuals to place structures in the park remains to be seen, but one thing is certain for Barb Leitgen. “When the martins come, then spring is on the way and the world is good.”

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