Solving the mystery of the declining purple martin population
Published Monday, July 7, 2014 5:36PM EDT Last Updated Monday, July 7, 2014 6:47PM EDT
It's the mystery of the disappearing purple martin. The insect-eating birds are in serious decline around the world. Now researchers in Eastern Ontario are on a mission to find out why. Their first stop today was at Ottawa’s Nepean Sailing Club, “home” to hundreds of purple martins. For the past fifteen years, Peter Huszca has played "landlord" to the beautiful birds at the Nepean Sailing Club, where he works repairing boats. He built their nests and maintains them like a proud papa. Huszcz lowers one bird sanctuary, opens it up and scoops out five little babies. In the past few years, he's noticed a drastic decline in the number of babies, half as many as there used to be.
“From 2009, we noticed a decline,” says Huszcz, “Our highest number of babies we banded was 385 and the numbers declined and this year we’re going to have barely 120, maybe 130 so it's more than half. So there's a reason for it and I don't know what it is because we didn't change anything here so there reason is somewhere else.”
That's what Nature Canada is trying to find out. It's partnered with York University and the University of Manitoba to track these insect-eating birds. Their numbers are dropping around the world. Scientists speculate it could be deforestation down south, chemicals up here or a decline in the insect population. The purple martins eat large high-flying insects including cicadas, dragonflies, bumblebees and wasps (but not mosquitoes. That’s a myth!)
Nature Canada is spearheading the Ottawa-area initiative, “About 2005, there were an estimated 25-thousand in Ontario,” says Ted Cheskey, the bird conservation program manager with Nature Canada, “now there’s about 15-thousand and at the rate they’re going, they will probably end up on the species at risk.”
Over the next few days, researchers will be catch 65 purple martins in order to attach either a GPS unit or a geo-locator that will help track these birds as they migrate south to Brazil.
How tough is it to catch a purple martin?
“Pretty easy,” says Pat Kramer, with York University, “we’ve been doing this for years and know all the tricks.”
So how do you catch a purple martin? Oddly enough, with a fishing rod and a trap door. Within a few minutes, they’ve captured a male and a female. The birds are squawking loudly, but they aren’t hurt. They will carry a little “backpack” for the next year that will help researchers understand what's happening along their migration route. And hopefully, that will help turn their numbers back around.
“I love these birds,” says Peter Huszcz, “and I want them to be here forever but I'm afraid in a few years’ time, we might not see them and that worries me.”
Nature Canada is counting on other “landlords” and bird lovers to contact them next year if they spot a purple martin sporting one of their little “backpacks.” They will need to capture the birds one more time to remove the GPS or geo-locator and download the information. You can contact Megan Macintosh, the Purple Martin Project Coordinator at Nature Canada at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://naturecanada.ca/initiatives/bird-conservation/purple-martin-project for more information.