Nature Canada launches Purple Martin Project

“PUMA”:  Don’t worry, Nature Canada is not about to sell athletic clothing or wrestle with large cats. PUMA is also an abbreviation (called an alpha code) that scientists often use to talk about a species of bird called the Purple Martin.

My name is Megan MacIntosh and I am thrilled to join Nature Canada as the Purple Martin Project Coordinator. There are many mysteries surrounding the life history of the Purple Martin that make it an interesting species to study, and there are many reasons to be excited about this project which I would like to share with you.

The Purple Martin is the largest North American swallow. It belongs to a guild of species called aerial insectivores which are specialized at feeding on insects while in flight. Other examples of aerial insectivores include swifts, swallows, fly-catchers, nightjars, and Whip-poor-wills. Aerial insectivores have experienced widespread population declines of up to 70% over the past several decades, and Purple Martins are no exception.

Why the startling decline? The exact cause of this unnerving trend remains unclear. Mortality from exposure to pesticides, wind power projects, decrease in food availability, inability to adapt to climate change and corresponding habitat changes have been suggested as possible culprits. To add to the mystery, population declines follow a geographic pattern and are most pronounced in the north-east of North America. A decline of 5 – 7.5% annually has been recorded in the lower Great Lakes/St. Lawrence region leaving the 2013 population estimated below 15,000 individuals.

Interestingly, Purple Martins have a strong connection with humans. They are diurnal (daytime) migrants that breed throughout North America and travel to Brazil for the winter. West of the Rocky Mountains they nest predominately in natural cavities, however, in eastern North America they are entirely dependent on apartment-like nest houses provided by their human ‘land lords’.

For a long time, little has been known about the timing and movements of migratory songbirds since their small bodies could not accommodate most tracking devices. As technology improves and tracking devices are made increasingly smaller, researchers are finally able to collect critical knowledge on these birds as they travel continental distances – information which will be crucial to their conservation.

The goal of the Eastern Ontario Purple Martin Project is to address knowledge gaps in the species life-cycle by determining their local, regional, and international movements, roost site locations, and post-breeding behaviour. The project aims to significantly contribute to the conservation of Purple Martins in anticipation of aiding the overall plight of aerial insectivores and related environmental issues.

If you’re interested in becoming involved, please feel free to stop by Nature Canada’s upcoming Bird Day Festival event on May 31st from 10am- 4pm at Andrew Haydon Park in Ottawa where I will be set up with a booth. You can also look towards upcoming volunteer opportunities such as banding and helping us locate local roost sites.