28 July 2009

Historic Narratives Indicate Purple Martins Used Nest Boxes

As a wide-spread species in the historic era, purple martins were observed and noted during the summer season when they arrived at the breeding grounds to find a nesting cavity suitable for raising a brood.

With the first settlement by scattered colonialists, expansion of civilization by western pioneers with its various accoutrements, and the myriad of changes as the nation's people spread westward across a growing nation, the natural choice for these birds evolved to a preference for built structures as a preferable adaptation that was very suitable instead of some cavity that perhaps some woodpecker had created and would prefer to utilize.

One of the earliest notations to some local residents providing a suitable haven to lay eggs and rear young was by Rev. John Clayton in 1693, when he noted nesting places had been built for the martin at the Virginia colonies on the Atlantic coast.

It was decades later when another subsequent account of pertinence is known.

In May 1874, at New York, "over the doors of most houses" were "boxes with pigeon holes..., for swallows to build in." The birds using the nest boxes were the color of pigeons, according to the sparse notes written by Henry Wansey.

In 1820 at the English Prairie of the Illinois territory, the pioneers would fix boxes on poles, or on the cabin, in which the "black-martins" would build, according to the John Woods, the author of the narrative.

Martins were noted in May 1843 by John J. Audubon, while breeding in woodpeckers holes in "high and very large" cottonwood trees at Cedar Island, along the untamed Missouri River in the lands of the Louisiana Territory, later designated as the Dakota Territory.

An account from 1858, as written by T. Charlton Henry, is based on observations during a residence of six years in the New Mexico territory: "69. Progne purpurea. This latter species seems confined to the mountains, and builds generally in hollows in pine trees."

There are numerous records of this species during subsequent years, but most were observation records without notes on any preference for breeding sites. [Purple Martin fledglings, ca. 1865]

Among the following observations, the use of built structures provided by local, human residents, were mentioned occasionally among the articles written about the occurrence and distribution of species at a particular place.

For western Iowa, when J.A. Allen was roving about several counties denoting the species present in 1867, for the purple martin, his account mentioned the species was "everywhere common; one of the most abundant Hirundines in the breeding season; about almost every house boxes are provided for their accommodation, which they readily occupy."

Another consideration for species of a particular vicinity, prepared about 1868, noted: "99. Progne purpurea, Linn., Boie; Purple Martin. Summer resident; abundant where proper accommodations are afforded; breeds in the county." This account was for Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, as prepared by J.J. Libhart.

In 1870, several eggs were taken from a box placed on a house at Madison, in New Haven County, Connecticut.

The regular occurrence of the species along the middle Missouri River, was indicated in 1871, with a note which said it was one of the most numerous species, and was breeding in all parts of the city in boxes liberally provided for their accommodation." The details were from Leavenworth, Kansas, in another article issued by J.A. Allen.

For 1872, the W.E.D. Scott notation for Kanawha County, West Virginia indicated: "32. Progne subis. Abundant. Found everywhere, breeding in houses put up for their use."

This is what C.F. Goodhue noted for the period ca. 1876: "not common; breeds, nesting in houses put up for them" in the vicinity of Webster, Merrimack County, New Hampshire.

Another report from the same year, noted they would breed in boxes. This was for Bucks County, Pennsylvania, as denoted by Joseph Thomas in his treatise indicating the different species about the region.

In 1877, the "blue marten" would "usually build in boxes prepared for them" as indicated in the birdly history provided by Elmer Baldwin for La Salle County, Illinois.

Although nest structures had obviously been used for decades, it was in 1879 when they were called martin-houses, by Charles F. Batchelder in his notes on summer birds present at Fort Fairfield, Maine.

The martin's had their own houses to select, but this practice was probably limited to an unknown extent about their range, but nonetheless more prevalent than the indications sparsely noted in historic accounts.

At Shinnecock Bay, New York, also from 1879, this species was very common, breeding in vast numbers in the boxes put up for their use, and also in holes in trees" according to G.N. Nicholas in his bird notes for Long Island.

According to C. Hart Merriman, in the 1881 era: "48. Progne subis (Linn.) Baird. Purple Martin. Breeds in Martin houses in the villages that lie within the limits of the Adirondack region" of New York.

Notes by William Brewster, published in the same year, mentioned: "Progne subis, purple martin; at Point du Chene where a colony occupied a martin box in the village." This observation was made during a cruise around the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

A colony inhabits some martin-boxes in the city of Bradford, Pennsylvania, according to the 1882 notes by James A. Tuelon.

These sparse bits of information give some indication that early colonists realized that Purple Martins could be attracted by providing them suitable nesting accommodations, in artificial nesting structures.

Since the humble origins more than 300 years ago, the practice spread around the range of distribution where the species has occurred. Efforts more prevalent were noted several times, but providing martin houses was likely more prevalent than a few historic records can indicate.

This practice has increased many multitudes through the decades and is now an expansive endeavor where there are often a large number of suitable nesting cavities in a local area, with large numbers of martins readily using the variously fine nesting places suitable for their use during seasonal breeding known for centuries in North America.

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