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My Life’s Birds: #73

March 12, 2008

July 6, 1993- Springfield, Mo- Of all the families of birds that pose difficult identification problems, perhaps the most underrated are the swallows. The thing is, I never gave them much thought, and perhaps I should have, especially in mind of my earlier Rough-winged/Bank Swallow snafu. The realization of the difficulty that swallows can pose hit me hard on a trip to Texas last spring when I was faced with the prospect of picking a Cave Swallow from a multitude of whirling, swirling Cliffs, Banks, and Trees. That story is many years down the road, though. Thankfully, in Missouri the options are much more limited.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that I come to Purple Martins in mid-March, the very week that the local listserve is buzzing with the first sightings of the season. Because robins are year-round here, the traditional first bird of spring takes a backseat to the eventual return of the big swallows. That’s the way it was back in Missouri too, and the first scouts’ foray was always the sign that better weather was on the horizon. But my life Martins were seen in the height of summer when the weather is already fine, and the birds can be easily found across south Springfield, drawn to the houses put up in nearly every subdivision across the city. Aggressive and gregarious, the birds are popular guests, and its a good thing too, being a Martin landlord is hard work involving preparation far beyond just strapping a house to a pole and waiting. They require a clean space every year, and vigilance against the hated Starlings and House Sparrows who would usurp the rightful tenants.

We never had Martins in our yard in Linden though, there were simply too many trees. But one of the first things we did when we moved into the suburbs was set up a Martin house that soon attracted a following. It wasn’t long before our neighbors had gourd and houses hanging too, and now, on the occasions that I return home, the development holds a thriving colony stretching across five yards. Not too shabby.

Photo by Maggie.Smith via flicker  (CC BY-NC)

  1. Jochen permalink
    March 12, 2008 7:24 am

    Teach the dumb German: what does “snafu” mean?

  2. March 12, 2008 7:54 am

    It’s an old WWII term that soldiers used, meaning “Situation Normal: All Fouled Up”. And not always something as polite as “fouled”.

    These days it’s used to describe something confusing or disordered.

  3. Jochen permalink
    March 12, 2008 8:24 am

    Aaah, I see: like the last update of the Hill IBWO search.
    Birder sees woodpecker approach tree trunk, landing behind (!) it,
    has his camera ready and focussed on the tree,
    claimed Ivorybill takes off and flies 15 feet (!!!) right above his head.
    Birder fails to press button on camera.


  4. Greg permalink
    March 12, 2008 9:37 am

    Timely post! My eyes are to the skies awaiting my first Martin of the year. Last year they arrived on March 11……

  5. March 12, 2008 11:23 am




    Martins are being reported all over Carolina. Yesterday I birded the museum’s prairie ridge ecostation and they have a tape loudly playing Martin calls in the hopes that some will hear and settle in the houses there. Really really obnoxious. Maybe you should try that…

  6. Jochen permalink
    March 12, 2008 11:54 am

    In Germany, we only get to see 3 species of swallow, so I was always happy seeing so many different ones up around the Great Lakes, it felt just like somewhere in the Afrotropics…

    Purple Martins are real stunners, just the size of them, and the fact that males appear black at a distance makes them appear even more impressive.
    But frankly I do feel the fact they live in those nest boxes (almost exclusively) takes away some of the magic. Purple Martins should breed somewhere real drastic, like behind waterfalls in association with Black Swifts (okay, forget that, too few waterfalls in Michigan) or in the bottom part of large raptor nests (like Spanish Sparrows do in Stork nests), or even incubate their eggs in flight between their legs, like Emperor Penguins do,…

    … and still be really common.

    But really, not in some nest box in front yards. Please, show some style.

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