PM COLONY UNDER SIEGE
By Terry Anne Suchma
The Purple Martin Society, NA
Most of the time when landlords read what I write regarding Purple Martins, few would know that I, too, suffer the same pangs of woe, sorrow, stress and anxiety just like other martin landlords. I am a real person and I am a devoted landlord with just an average colony of birds. As there are many times that I relish and revel in my colony of martins, there are many times when I grieve over the martins, too. Yes, I know martins, their behavior and biology, and when my martins are not here, there is an easiness and an objectivity in advising other people in the knowledge and experiences of the martin interest. However, as the birds return home to my backyard, performing the rituals of martin life and fulfilling their little birdie destinies, I see the realities of a martin life here in my own backyard, many times too up-close and personal. And during the stressful times that make Purple Martin landlords apprehensive, and there are many of these times, I am reminded by my husband "to take my own advise."
In the last four days, I have observed a Sharp-Shinned Hawk in the area of my colony of martin houses. In my years in the interest, and not that I wouldn't think these lean hawks were capable of doing it, but I have never seen any hawk sitting on any of my houses until the last few days, but that changed on Monday.
Early Monday at the breakfast table, either my husband or I read our horoscope for the day. Not that we hold much stock in any of the horoscope's so called wisdom or prophecies, but it is just that it worth a chuckle or two early in the mornings. Sort of helps to get our motors running here. On Monday, my day was supposed to be an "8" (out of 10). Haven't had an "8" in a very long time. But I can tell you now that Monday was the absolutely worst "8" I have ever had! So, much for the horoscope folks! I went from one mess that I created to more messes that I continued to create for myself--all morning long. At 12:30 p.m., I was beginning to feel hungry so I began to make myself lunch and continuing in the habit of the day, I made still one more mess. After cleaning that one up, I finally had my little sandwich firmly in my grip and was just to take a bite as I made my way to the window to check on any martins. Midway between the kitchen and sunroom-- there, I saw it.
My first reaction was "Boy, that martin is very tall!" I remember thinking that the bird that was sitting on the top railing of the TG-Triple--its head was higher than the eaves of the house roof! Though that was a first thought, my very next and immediate thought was that it was a Sharp-Shinned Hawk. I remember thinking it was a very lean bird. Tall and lean, and yes, very hungry!
After these quick thoughts, I actually scurried. I have never thought of myself "scurrying" ever in the past. Scurrying is what cartoon characters do with their feet but go nowhere. But, just the same, "scurrying" is what I was doing. And I was fumbling. Fumbling to find my binoculars. With all this action and reaction in the house, the bird with the keen eyesight and hearing looked my way and lifted off, giving me just the view I needed to confirm my observations. It was indeed a Sharp-shinned Hawk.
After the bird flew off, I scanned the area below the house to see if the bird had been successful in taking one of my martins, but I did not see any feathers below the house. I felt relieved but only for a moment. Would this stealth bird be back and pick off the martins, one by one? I hope not.
I noticed today that the martins spent the entire day away from the house. Not that this is unusual behavior by the martins at the colony site this early in the season because it is not. Because not a lot of insects are hatched yet, the martins must still find many smaller bodied insect foods and continue to feed on these insects. For most of the time, the birds spend great amounts of time over the local watershed areas until the spring weather continues to improve and dragonflies and damselflies and other large bodied insects are plentiful. Here, in my area, there is a rich feeding area, one mile south of here where there are several bodies of water parallel to each other. It is a very unique topographical area where the DesPlaines River, the Illinois and Michigan Canal (while the canal exists, it is abandoned), the Ship and Sanitary Canal, and the Calumet-Sag Channel all lie parallel together within a half mile of one another. While these watersheds exist, they are not dominant in anyone's lives or minds here in Illinois. I live on the south end, lower Burr Ridge, as I call it. Most folks around here would be hard pressed to name all four bodies of water, even if they knew the four existed. Obviously, they are not used for recreation or any other reason to serve ordinary citizens' needs. I know them as they have historical significance and I am a history buff. I know them also because this is where my martins go to forage big time or in times of adverse weather. And the martins know them as fine foraging areas.
But even though this is normal type of activity, the birds usually come home and check things out now and then, but today, they are gone all day. I wonder why. But, I conclude the bugs must be pretty good today down there. I have no other reason now to think otherwise.
At six o'clock, I receive a phone call from one of the PM Society members here in the area. I am telling him of the Sharp-Shinned Hawk's visit earlier that day and that it sat on my house. Just as I finish and go on to another subject, my eyes turn to the martin houses out in the yard, and there it staunchly stands once more. The Sharpie--to my horror!
"Oh, this is not good," I mutter to myself. Not only am I scurrying, but this bird is making me mutter now. A commotion taking place in the kitchen. I am calling to my husband to come see the hawk sitting on the martin house, but by the time, my husband is able, the bird, once again, either sees all of the house commotion, or hears it, and lifts off.
This is not my first encounter with this type of hawk before. For many years, I have watched with excitement as the Sharpies have reconnoitered my yard in the winter with the many areas of birdfeeders. I know these birds. I know that they are very good at what they do. And I have seen them do it! They are like stealth fighters. In the winter, I am more objective and more understanding of what these birds do and why they naturally do it. However, in the martin season, I must calm myself down and remember what it is that I tell others regarding these magnificent birds of prey.
What I tell other folks: In the bird world, the number of birds is skewed in favor of songbirds and not the birds of prey. Since there are fewer birds of prey, those birds (of prey/accipiters) that feed on other birds do only what comes naturally to them. They kill neither for fun nor whim. They kill only to eat and only eat what they kill. Nothing is wasted. In the real world, there are enough songbirds and their numbers can tolerate the relatively few lost to accipiters.
In the bird world, an accipiter is not always successful in every foray. Success is only 15% most of the time, and in the wild in bad weather, these birds go without food on many sharp days of winter. This is one reason that zoos only feed wild animals six days of the week to simulate austere natural conditions in the wild.
So, today, knowing that this bird is well acquainted with my backyard martin colony, I continue to hear my own words in my head. While I understand it, I don't have to like it. While I do what I have to do regarding House Sparrows, I do not extend this same thinking to any protected bird, nor would I under any circumstances.
And speaking of protection of law: All species of birds enjoy the protection of state and federal wildlife laws with the exception of House Sparrows, European Starlings, pigeons and game birds in season. These laws are reinforced with serious penalties: fines up to $20,000 and up to five years in prison and/or both. It is clear what birds are protected, which are not and what the consequences are if laws are violated.
My thinking is that this bird which now visits the colony once or twice daily, that I have observed, might possibly be a migratory bird. Migratory birds must hunker down at certain areas along their migratory path, either due to current bad weather where the bird is presently or bad weather ahead. Sometimes, the birds are stalled along the way for a day or for a few days. Since they are the strangers in the area, they do not know the ins and outs of this strange food territory like the resident birds of prey do. But what they do know is that conspicuous martin houses out in the open areas of our yards may be easy pickins. It is not that the martins are inept at protecting themselves with aerial proficiency. I am confident that they are a very difficult bird to target by the lords of the air. It is that their shear numbers, or population density, in one location, makes them attractive and an easy food to accipiters.
(Accipiters are birds of prey that have long tails and short, rounded wings for great speed and flying agility. They are birds that eat other birds. Their job was to cull the numbers of birds in the environment. And, it was an important natural job.
Sharp-Shinned, Cooper's Hawks and Northern Goshawks belong to this family. Similar birds of prey with the same MO are Falcons, like Peregrines, Prairie Falcons, Kestrels, Merlins and Gyrfalcons.) For the most part, these birds mainly take birds relative to their own size for cost efficiency.)
So, it is my hope that this is only a temporary situation. The bird will get few or no martins, and it will hopefully move on. For me, definitely “sooner” is better rather than later. I also hope that the martins are adept at what they seem to do so very well--wonderful aerial acrobatics and maneuvers. I like to believe that the martins are very skillful and can evade the Sharpie. The problem arises when the martins are nonchalantly perched and sitting on their houses and porch railings. Sharpies are so cool, so fast that they appear to come out of nowhere and strike.
Another problem is that this Sharpie thinks that it can come down, sit on the porch railings and possibly pull martins out of their holes. Not here, it can't! If the martins want to stay here at PM Command Central, they all must go through "starling-resistant" holes in their houses. These same specialized entrances and deep compartments make it difficult, probably impossible, that any bird of prey sitting on the house can stick its taloned foot inside any of the entrances and extract a martin meal. On the other hand, if the martins inside become rattled and flee, the Sharpie gets a martin meal. On the other hand, again, martins under siege usually stay within the confines of their house. They remain steadfast up against the far wall. Thank goodness for that! I can go back and forwards on this for hours, I am sure. Talk about stress!
I will have to wait it out and see what happens. In the meantime, I have noticed that the martins spend more time away these few days than they normally would. I would suppose that one line of defense at the colony during a time like this is not to come home until you have to. So, while I wait for the martins to come home, I wait until it is almost dark and they all begin to come home. They sweep the airspace above their colony for last morsels of insects for the day for about ten minutes, and like a steady stream of bats into a bat cave, they fly fast and furious into their respective compartments for the night--with the exception of one.
"KEEP 'EM FLYING!"
Terry Anne Suchma
(Accipiters are birds of prey that have long tails and short, rounded wings for great speed and flying agility. They are birds that eat other birds. Sharp-Shinned, Cooper's Hawks and Northern Goshawks belong to this family. Similar birds of prey with the same MO are Falcons, like Peregrines, Prairie Falcons, Kestrels, Merlins and Gyrfalcons.) For the most part, these birds mainly take birds relative to their own size for cost efficiency.)