Izaak Walton members flock to help purple martins

Published 6:43 am Friday, May 14, 2010

When Izaak Walton League members looked in on purple martins that nest near East Side Lake, they found about 20 of the birds huddled together, shivering, in a single nest box.

“They must be trying to stay warm,” Izaak Walton League member Bob Goetz said, peering into the bird house Thursday.

Goetz, along with Gordy Kuehne and Stan Rasmussen, was concerned that the martins might be doing poorly in the recent cold, wet conditions. And they wanted to help, if they could.

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Wintering in Brazil, purple martins migrate to North America in the spring to breed, according to The Purple Martin Conservation Association.

The local chapter of the Izaak Walton League maintains several bird houses on the lake, and Thursday all of the birds were in one house, nestled into one of its 14 cubby holes.

This year, not only are the birds — who measure 7 1/2 inches long and weigh 1.9 ounces — finding their springtime home damp, but also altogether inhospitable.

Martins, like all swallows, are aerial insectivores, eating only flying insects that they catch while in flight themselves. This makes martins vulnerable to weather conditions that affect insect availability, like rain. When poor weather persists for more than a couple days, martins begin to die of starvation, according to The Purple Martin Conservation Association.

The Izaak Walton League members found three martins dead on arrival Thursday, as well as several that were too weak to fly.

They tried to help by feeding them scrambled eggs.

“It’s an experiment, that some have found successful in other places,” Goetz said.

Typically, the eggs are flung into the air so that the birds can eat in their natural manor — while in flight. Because the martins seemed too ill to fly Thursday, the Izaak Walton members tried to spoon-feed them individually.

The martins did not take to the food, and the three left the eggs on the bird houses’ ledges in hopes that they might dare to try it later.

“We did what we can do,” Kuehne said. “We’ll just have to let mother nature take care of it.”