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Can you help us solve another martin mystery?
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Can you help us solve another martin mystery?

[caption id="attachment_22770" align="alignright" width="187"]Henry Ford Purple Martin House Earlier martin houses came in many elaborate styles. Interestingly, Henry Ford had a strong interest in birds and purchased many of these 1920s style martin mansions from
J. Warren Jacobs’ company for his Fair Lane estate in Michigan.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_16451" align="alignleft" width="150"]Megan McIntosh Megan McIntosh, Purple Martin Project Coordinator[/caption] Purple Martins are social, colonial birds. They have a very interesting relationship with humans that dates back centuries. It is believed that before Europeans arrived in North America, some First Nations people hung up hollowed out gourds (similar to a pumpkin) to encourage Purple Martins to nest near their settlements, and Europeans continued this tradition. Putting up these martin houses was so common that east of the Rocky Mountains, Purple Martins had become entirely dependent on these special birdhouses that people provide for them. In John J. Audubon’s (American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter) world renowned book, Birds of America (Published between 1827 and 1838), he remarked “All our cities are furnished with houses for the reception of these birds”. Today, we still enjoy this tradition that began with First Nations. Unfortunately, Purple Martins and related species (aerial insectivores including swallows, swifts, nightjars and flycatchers) are declining rapidly throughout most of their range. The main cause of this decline is a bit of a mystery - it could be a combination of factors such as climate change, habitat loss, pesticides that reduce insect food, and industrial activity. It could be related to their breeding grounds, their wintering grounds, their migratory routes or combinations of the three. Fortunately, passionate researchers and naturalists across the Americas are working hard to uncover the causes and identify solutions to help recover these species' populations.

Perhaps you can help us find out more about this other little martin mystery?

Purple Martin Box OttAWARecently, we have discovered a unique Purple Martin house nestled between the trees in a public park that overlooks the Ottawa River - even though our Nature Canada office is only a five minute walk away! Currently, the house appears to be only used by a few starlings. Sources say that it housed Purple Martin colonies as recent as the 1990’s and was erected sometime in the 1960’s. The tiered system sits atop a five meter high post with approximately 28 individual wooden compartments that are painted white. The hexagonal metal clad roof and decorative brackets add to the structures distinctive charm. Overall, the house is quite weathered, the paint is peeling and rust is evident on the roof. The entrance holes to the nesting cavities appear to have been crudely enlarged from the original design and vary in size to each entrance. We are curious! Not much is known about the origins of this house. Who installed it? How old is it really? Is it a custom built house or a popular model from a specific time? Who maintained it and why were the entrances altered? Can you help us solve the mystery of the Cliff Street Park Purple Martin house? If you can, please email Megan, our Purple Martin Project Coordinator, with the subject "Purple Martin mystery on the Hill". [one_half][/one_half] [one_half_last] [caption id="attachment_22788" align="aligncenter" width="500"]An interesting Purple Martin house located in a private public park tucked away behind the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa. An interesting Purple Martin house located in a public park tucked away behind the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa.[/caption] [/one_half_last] Email Signup

Your voices have power – will you speak up again?
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Your voices have power – will you speak up again?

[caption id="attachment_16443" align="alignleft" width="150"]Eleanor Fast Eleanor Fast
Executive Director[/caption] Wildlife in Canada can’t speak for themselves, but we can! And the voices of our 55,000 members and supporters speaking up together is a powerful thing. We’ve seen that power recently. For example, in March I wrote about some of the work we’ve been doing as your Voice for Nature to increase protection of the Monarch butterfly throughout its range. Then hundreds of you signed a petition to the Minister of Environment demanding action. In July I was pleased to attend a meeting of the North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation where it was announced that Monarch Butterfly conservation will be a key priority for environmental cooperation between Canada, the US and Mexico. Together we raised our voices and made a difference. Nature Canada will continue to work to be a voice for the Monarch butterfly. Now, we ask you to raise your voices again. This time for threatened Swallow species. Last month I wrote to the Minister of the Environment urging action to list Barn and Bank Swallows as threatened species under the Species at Risk Act. Can you believe that it is four years since the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) recommended these birds be listed and still there has been no action? This is urgent; their numbers are declining rapidly. You can read more about this here. It makes me sad to know that the government could have taken action four years ago to protect these Swallows and to ask for an assessment of others, and yet nothing has been done. When I speak with our Conservation Team about Nature Canada’s work on Swallows, particularly our Purple Martin project, we are all happy to be contributing to understanding and protection, but we know that if the government took action then even more could be done! We know that together our voices achieve results. Let’s be a Voice for Nature for the Swallows. We don’t know who the Minister of Environment will be after the Federal election, but let’s make sure that whoever it is, one of the first things in their inbox is a petition from Nature Canada members and supporters demanding action to protect these threatened species. I’ve already written a letter. Please will you join me and write your own. Or, even easier, simply sign our petition and we’ll ensure your voice is heard.

Welcome Back Purple Martins!
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Welcome Back Purple Martins!

[caption id="attachment_16451" align="alignleft" width="150"]Megan McIntosh Megan McIntosh, Purple Martin Project Coordinator[/caption] Spring is finally here, and like clockwork, the Purple Martins are back from their winter vacation in the Amazon of Brazil. These beautiful birds are North America’s largest swallow. They breed throughout the United States and Canada, often returning to the same site each year! Humans have a very interesting and important role in their conservation because Purple Martins nest almost exclusively in apartment-like bird houses that we provide for them. Unfortunately, Purple Martins and countless of other songbird species are suffering from a severe population crash. As you may recall, last year Nature Canada joined an international effort to help determine the cause of their decline and recover their populations. We teamed up with Manitoba and York Universities, local nature organizations, community members, and Martin caretakers to create the ‘Purple Martin Project’. Our work involved putting small tracking devices (GPS and geolocators) on nearly 60 adult birds at field locations in the Ottawa and Kingston areas. These tracking devices carry some very exciting information: Over the past year they have recorded exactly where the Purple Martins have been along their Tagged Purple Martinsmigratory route between Ontario and Brazil! Now that the birds have returned, Nature Canada is making plans to recapture them and remove the tracking devices so that the data can be analyzed by university scientists. We look forward to updating you on the results! For more information about the project and how you can become involved please contact the Project Coordinator at the information provided below. Also, if you have not yet watched the debut documentary “Songbird SOS” on The Nature of Things we recommend checking it out! The film provides an excellent background on the plight of songbirds and the hardworking people who are trying save them.   Megan MacIntosh, Purple Martin Project Coordinator mmacintosh@naturecanada.ca, 613-562-3447 ext.234

Purple Martin Project – Stories From the Field
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Purple Martin Project – Stories From the Field

The first phase of the Purple Martin Project has been completed! Over the second week of July, nearly 60 adult birds were fitted with tracking devices in order to find out more about what kind of risks this declining species might be facing on their migratory journey to Brazil. In this blog I’ve included a summary of our fieldwork, some of my favorite photos, media coverage and links, as well as our goals moving forward. [separator headline="h2" title="Field Work Summary"] Over the course of the week, we had a dream team of researchers, volunteers, naturalist groups, hosts, and landlords (purple martin caretakers) participate. Field work was lead by researchers from York University and the University of Manitoba. Approximately a dozen volunteers received training which included banding, taking wing and leg measurements, taking feather and blood samples, and fitting the birds with tracking devices (GPS and geolocators). Our field work brought us to some very scenic places surrounded by nature, particularly since Purple Martins tend to nest in close proximity to bodies of water. All three of our field sites were encompassed within an Important Bird Area (IBA). IBAs are recognized globally for their significance to bird populations and there are approximately 600 of these sites across Canada.  Our first field site, the Nepean Sailing Club in Ottawa, is located on a beautifully maintained property next to the Ottawa River. We also had field sites on both Amherst Island and Wolfe Island; charming rural farming communities which must be reached by ferry from the Kingston area. At each of these locations, we were treated to gorgeous sunrises over Lake Ontario. [caption id="attachment_14467" align="alignnone" width="960"]Fieldwork began at sunrise on Amherst Island (photo by Megan MacIntosh) Fieldwork began at sunrise on Amherst Island (photo by Megan MacIntosh)[/caption] In Ottawa, we were joined by local volunteers, our partners from the Innis Point Bird Observatory (IPBO) and the colony landlord, Peter Huszcz. Peter custom built the two very large martin houses which can be lowered for easy maintenance. Every year Peter and the IPBO hold community events to band the nestlings. In recent years they have noticed a steady decline in the number of nestlings which they are very concerned about. Our first day of work in Ottawa was delayed by heavy rain, yet it was the busiest of all our field sites. Not only was the colony very large (approximately 50 adult pairs), but there was also significant amount of media attention, and visitations from curious passersby. We set mass traps by installing trap doors held up by fishing line above the cavity entrance holes. The traps were triggered later that evening by cutting the fishing line once the birds were safely settled in their cavities for the night. We returned again at sunrise to conduct our work with the captured birds. Despite weather delays, we managed to deploy 29 tracking devices. The story of our work was covered by CTV Ottawa, CBC Ottawa, the Ottawa Citizen, and Ottawa Metro. The story was picked up by newspapers across the country including the Calgary Herald, Windsor Star, Edmonton Journal, and Regina Leader Post. [caption id="attachment_14469" align="alignnone" width="960"]Waiting to begin our field work during a heavy downpour at the Nepean Sailing Club. (Photo by Ted Cheskey) Waiting to begin our field work during a heavy downpour at the Nepean Sailing Club (Photo by Ted Cheskey)[/caption] The majority of the nestlings at Wolf Island and Amherst Island were much older than what we observed at the Nepean Sailing Club - some had already fledged! This presented a bit of a challenge to trapping the adult birds. This is because the adult birds do not often enter the cavity once the nestlings are old enough to begin feeding at the entrance holes. In addition, the bird houses at these locations could not be manually lowered. We had to get a bit creative with our methods, which turned out to be a lot of fun. We used a tall ladders (and tall people) to sneak up on the bird houses at night and cover up the entrance holes. At sunrise, our team returned to find that we had captured more birds than expected, but still not enough to reach our goal. So we remained onsite throughout the afternoon and proceeded with target trapping with some success. We were treated with great hospitality and kindness in these communities. The Kingston Field Naturalists had a key role to play in assisting with our work in this area.  An article was written in the Kingston Whig-Standard about our work on Amherst Island, and Nature Canada also made an appearance on CBC Ontario Morning. [caption id="attachment_14470" align="alignnone" width="960"]PhD Candidate Patrick Kramer from York University reaches for captured birds as Martins fly overhead (photo by Ted Cheskey) PhD Candidate Patrick Kramer from York University reaches for captured birds as Martins fly overhead (photo by Ted Cheskey)[/caption] [separator headline="h2" title="Looking Forward"] We are thrilled to see the public as excited as we are about Purple Martins and their conservation. News stories about this project have initiated a wonderful response from the community. At Nature Canada, we get phone calls and e-mails everyday from folks who are interested in becoming involved. We absolutely love hearing from you! It is a privilege to be a part of this project and to be working with such fantastic people. We are very much looking forward to August when we will begin the second phase of the project: a search for sites called ‘roosts’ where Martins gather by the thousands before they undergo fall migration. Determining the location of Martin roosts in the Eastern Ontario region will be an important piece of the puzzle in helping to unravel the mystery of why these birds are experiencing such a startling decline. Check back near the end of August for another update from the field!

Solving an international mystery
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Solving an international mystery

Why are Purple Martins disappearing? Recently, there has been a sharp drop in the number of Purple Martins in Ontario and the reason behind this is not clear. Figuring out where they go to escape our cold winters will go a long way in helping us understand why their numbers are dropping. To start answering the question of why they're disappearing, we started a project called the Purple Martin Project which is a collaboration between Nature Canada and York and Manitoba university scientists. Phase one of the project involved attaching tiny GPS trackers on Purple Martins in eastern Ontario. Just last week, scientists from Nature Canada and York and Manitoba Universities, caught Purple Martins, and with the greatest care, placed a small tracker on their backs, kind of like a backpack They were then released near their homes in man-made nests which resemble bird 'condos'. The capture and release happened at the Nepean Sailing Club in Ottawa and on private properties on Amherst and Wolfe Islands, both located in Lake Ontario and a short distance from Kingston, Ontario. [caption id="attachment_14032" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Image of purple martin with a GPS tracker A Purple Martin with a GPS tracker attached to its back.[/caption] [separator headline="h2" title="Where do Purple Martins go in winter? "] We don't know much about Purple Martins, but we do know that they over-winter in Brazil. But Brazil is a big country and there are many obstacles along the way to reaching the end of their migratory journey. From now until next spring, the tracking devices on each bird will collect vital information about where it went and how long it stayed in each location. Using this information, we can piece together a life story about these amazing birds and get one step closer to understanding why their numbers are declining. If we can pinpoint the reason(s) for their decline, then we can improve protection for them. Unfortunately, Purple Martins are not alone in experiencing population declines. They are part of larger group of birds called 'aerial insectivores' that have shown striking declines in recent decades. That's troubling for bird watchers but also for whole ecosystems that needs just the right number of prey and predators to flourish. Purple Martins eat insects and help keep their population in check. Without them, entire forests would be quickly devoured by billions of hungry, leaf-eating insects. [caption id="attachment_14045" align="aligncenter" width="800"]image of Purple Martins nesting in gourds Purple Martins nest in man-made structures such as these 'condos' of gourds.[/caption] [separator headline="h2" title="Purple Martin Project makes the front page "] The plight of this enigmatic bird has caught the attention of media across the country. Their declining numbers coupled with our efforts to save them have captured the imaginations of local radio and TV shows, print and online newspapers from Ottawa to Calgary. With stories published in the Ottawa Citizen, Calgary Herald and others, we're well on our way to achieving one of the important goals of the Purple Martin Project - educating people about the endangered species. CBC Radio's All in a Day had Sarah Kirkpatrick-Wahl, Nature Canada's Conservation Coordinator and Purple Martin Project participant, on its show to talk about the birds and what the project is all about. Find out more about the Purple Martin Project and how you can get involved. [video type="youtube" id="PnSJzNbmKNw" width="940" height="420"]      

First it was the butterflies, then it was the bees, and now it’s the birds
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First it was the butterflies, then it was the bees, and now it’s the birds

A specific kind of insecticide has been harming bees worldwide. But it is starting to have a ripple effect. A study in the Netherlands has shown that there has been a decline in farmland birds. They trace the decline to the use of a particular kind of insecticide known as neonicotinoids on insects. Many birds eat insects or feed it to their young. But if their food has been contaminated then it’s possible for even a single kernel of corn to cause the birds to get sick or even die.


Check out National Geographic's excellent video on neonicotinoids here:

Image of Professor Hans de Kroon in a field
The insecticides are also killing insects, giving birds not enough food to eat. The results could be negative to the effects on the food chain if we don’t stop using neonicotinoids, especially on farmland. In Canada, Nature Canada is working on solving this problem. We've partnered with the University of Manitoba and York University and local naturalist groups to tag and monitor populations of Purple Martin birds. Nature Canada's Purple Martin Project will hopefully help us understand what role, if any, neonicotinoids have on other species. Click here to learn more.

This is a guest blog post by Courtenay Bettinger, a Nature Canada summer student.

Nature Canada launches Purple Martin Project
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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.

Bird Tweet of the Week: Purple Martin
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Bird Tweet of the Week: Purple Martin

Purple Martins are found locally during migration and breeding between mid-April and early July, and gather in large flocks and move through the region throughout August, vanishing by Labour Day. [caption id="attachment_14558" align="alignleft" width="300"]purple martin Purple Martin. Photographed by Greg Lasley[/caption] Each week we introduce a new bird from the Ottawa-Gatineau area through our segment on CBC Radio's In Town and Out. Alex MacDonald, Nature Canada's Manager of Protected Areas, shares interesting facts about the birds that live in our communities. Be sure to tune-in to "Bird Tweet of the Week" on CBC Radio One 91.5 FM on Saturday mornings from 6am to 9am and listen to past episodes on our website This episode aired on Saturday September 7, 2013

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