While vacationing in Corpus Christi, Texas, early in February, Kelly Applegate spotted a purple martin. The two-ounce martins, with a wing span of up to 14 inches, are now on their way north from Brazil. Who knows, maybe that very bird summers along the shores of Mille Lacs Lake. Maybe that bird would become the object of study by the Minnesota Purple Martin Working Group, of which the Mille Lacs Band is a member. That study shows that since 1966, Minnesota’s purple martin population has declined by 80 percent. Kelly, a Mille Lacs Band member, is a wildlife biologist and fisheries technician. He’s worked at the Band’s Natural Resources division since 2006. A study of the bird’s migrating patterns started in 2007 and includes scientists from York University in Toronto, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Audubon Society, and Kelly himself.
With his fascination for and protective nature toward the birds, not to mention his encyclopedic knowledge, it’s fitting to dub Kelly a present day bird man of Minnesota.
The little birds first forged a bond with American Indians long ago. Their natural habitat, the hollowed out trunks of trees in the old forest, was clear cut by timber industry barons in the 1800s. So purple martins from the southeastern United States overcame that loss by nesting in hollowed out gourds used to store grain by southeastern tribes.
“Martins have always been here,” Kelly said. “They’ve adapted with humans and a changing landscape.” As more Europeans settled throughout the country, the idea of a multi-compartment martin house was born. The birds abandoned nesting in hollowed out trees and today, 100 percent of martins are dependent on humans for housing. In the 1950s and 1960s, thousands of back yards throughout the U.S. contained a flagpole and a martin house.
Kelly said that recent research shows that the ideal martin house is 12 inches long to prevent hawks, owls and other predators from entering. The martins are also sensitive to location: they will not nest near tall trees where predators hide.
Then came the late 1970s and the martin multi-house in so many suburban yards went out of fashion. Fewer houses meant fewer martins. In addition, the population of year-round European starlings and the English house sparrow increased greatly so the birds competed for the same housing. Unpredictable and harsh spring weather creates challenges for the birds that are due back in Minnesota in mid-April: a severe cold snap damages the bird’s ability to catch insects or keep babies warm during an unseasonably cold spring. When the birds become desperate, humans step in, leaving feeders with meal worm, crickets or scrambled eggs. A normal martin life span is five to seven years, although Kelly knows of a birdthat lived to the ripe old age of 13. The martins require various levels of management, Kelly said. The birds he works with are in houses that are lowered on a cable. Each week he opens the houses to count eggs and band birds. Kelly bands 800 to 1000 birds each year with numbers large enough to be read with a telescope. There are five main colonies in the Mille Lacs area, all along the shoreline and all on tribal property.
The most visible martins to a tourist’s eye take up summer residence in the 18 units behind Eddy’s Resort, where geolocator deployments take place. That may sound like a military maneuver, and in some respects, it is. The birds receive a fingernail-size device that’s tied on. The geolocators measure the amount of sunlight, which tells scientists where the birds travel. Most purple martins go to Brazil for the winter months, and with a stopover in Yucatan on their way back and forth to North America. That means the purple martins have something else in common with American Indians: flexibility. Mille Lacs Band members live everywhere throughout the United States, in cities, small towns, on reservations, in rural areas. Martins do the same, from the Amazon River to the Mille Lacs Lake shoreline, adapting as they go. And like Indians on a lot of reservations, they have a housing shortage.
Want to help? Kelly said he’d be happy to advise anyone on how to put up martin housing. Call him