Purple martins are back

Many in Southeast Louisiana consider February synonymous with Carnival season. But for Sal Noto it’s not the parades that have him ripe with anticipation, but the return of hundreds of his “closest” feathered friends.

Hanging above his quiet Luling residence sit teardrop- shaped gourds, basically a fancy term for the habitats he erects yearly to attract purple martins.

The open-air swallow travels to the southern hemisphere each winter to seek warmer climates, but returns to Louisiana early each year seeking food and shelter. Noto is happy to provide the former, and Mother Nature provides the latter with the staple of a martin’s diet – airborne insects.

“They truly are worth their weight in gold,” Noto said of the dark-colored pest eliminators that frequent the front of his yard through the spring. “Each bird can eat about 2000 mosquitoes per night.”

In post-Katrina Louisiana, many can attest to the increase in size and population of salt-marsh mosquitoes, perhaps making the effort of attracting martins more important than ever.

It’s a mutually beneficial partnership Noto shares with the martins, he said. He provides them with a safe shelter and the supplies to build their nests and in return he’s rewarded with a natural mosquito exterminator. But for Noto, it’s what the bird represents that he’s most fond of.

“I think the best part about the birds is when they start to come in,” Noto said. “You hear them chirp for the first time and you know springtime is around the corner.”

The first martins came in February this year, according to Noto. Those birds are called scouts. A scout is typically one of the older birds that flies back first seeking a suitable habitat in which to bring his family, or start a new one as they often do, Noto said.

“The scouts have a looksee, and if they like what they see, they bring their girlfriends back,” he said.

While Noto sees many different birds in the area, martins are unique in that they allow people to view them in and around their habitats without being shooed away from the slightest noise, something he says you don’t get with many other birds.

Currently he’s only seen about 10 or 12 through the month of February, but the younger martins will soon follow suit and join their older counterparts, expanding Noto’s colony to triple digits as has been the case for the past 10 years.

Over the past couple years, Noto said other people in the neighborhood have begun erecting their own martin habitats; competition that he gladly welcomes, although he doesn’t consider it competition.

“It’s about enjoying the birds,” Noto said. “I think it’s great other people are taking an interest.”

Noto even offered tips for any prospective landlords of a colony of martins, many of which are echoed by the Purple Martin Conservation Association.

The most important thing to keep in mind when attracting martins is to have a clear fly-way for the birds to enter and exit – one that is relatively free from the obstruction a tree might cause.

Predators such as hawks and owls are also something to watch for once a person manages to have a martin nest in their habitats – hawks especially, Noto said.

“The hawks will swoop in and grab the martins like it’s a McDonald’s drive-thru,” he said. “The owls play hell with them at night too.”

Sparrows and starlings also prove to be enemies of the martin by forcing their way into their habitats, disposing of the martin and its eggs and ultimately building it’s own nest on top of the martins’.

Neither the sparrow or starling are illegal to kill in Louisiana, and the PMCA recommends euthanasia for a sparrow or starling that proves to be problematic for a fledgling martin colony.

All in all, Noto said it’s about the love for the birds and a love for nature that keeps him caring for the martins year after year. With a smile on his face he made a prediction for what this year holds for his martins.

“We’re going to have a good year,” Noto said. “I just know we will.”


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