If you build it, they will come

Alice Mannette
Morris Yoder moves one of his seven purple martin boxes back up into the air at his home Tuesday morning. Yoder enjoys creating an area for the migratory birds to nest in, and putting in the time and labor to keep the birds healthy and safe.

Morris Yoder grew up with purple martins in his backyard. Once he was married, his love for the bird increased. Soon he was buying 8-inch creature houses and cleaning their nests.

Purple Martins live in both North and South America. They spend the winter months living on treetops in Brazil. In February, they head to North America to mate and hatch their young. But in the U.S. and Canada, they must nest in man-made shelters.

“They are a timid bird,” Yoder said. “They like humans. I spend a lot of time with them. They know me.”

Yoder owns more than 100 “rooms,” which the martins use from mid-March through July at his Pretty Prairie home. Once a week, he checks on their nests, making sure the young ones are thriving.

“They are such a beautiful bird,” Yoder said. “I love to watch them.”

Martins are also useful. Because they stay close to their nests and near humans, they are advantageous for gardeners and farmers, eating airborne pests before they land.

“They eat more than one-quarter trillion insects every year,” said Joe Siegrist, president and CEO of the Purple Martin Conservation Association. “The shift away from natural insect control to artificial is killing off the diet of the purple martin.”

Purple martins need their houses built in an area clear of tall trees. Their houses need to be built on poles that can be lowered for cleaning. Houses range in cost from a $100 do-it-yourself model to ones that retail for more than $2,000.

“They can only nest in artificial nests,” Siegrist said. “There’s minimal difference in the type of housing. You can go full-on Mercedes, or you can buy a Ford.”

Decreasing population

Martins are on a population decline. The PMCA is conducting research on how to help the bird.

“We’ve lost about one-third of them in the last five years,” Siegrist said. “Our ultimate goal is to use research to conserve them.”

Mercury poisoning from their habitat in South America has negatively affected the bird.

“The overall population of purple martins in Kansas has been statistically stable,” Siegrist said. “This is a testament to the effort of all of the purple martin landlords across the state.”

According to Siegrist, the greater Wichita area has had strong declines in martin populations. But the bird’s population has increased in the eastern and western portions of Kansas.

Yoder, who runs Morris Yoder Auctions, helps others get started with their purple martin houses.

“You’ve gotta kind of think how they would,” he said. “They’re kind of a particular bird.”

A purple martin lands on the front of the nesting box before taking a dragonfly inside to the nest to feed the young chicks.  Purple martin birds feed on flying insects including butterflies, houseflies and moths, but dragonflies are their favorite.