The Last Check of 2007
Yesterday, I did my last "up close and personal" Purple Martin nest checks. From now on, all observations must be made from the ground, with binoculars or a spotting scope. It was a bitter-sweet time. I am sorry to have to stop studying these tiny avian miracles and holding them in my hand, but this last check really had me freaked out, as you will see, so in one way, I am relieved to be able to stop.
Purple Martin management rules say that after your oldest clutch is 24 days old, you need to be extremely careful about lowering your housing and doing nest checks. You don't want to cause premature fledging. Martin young cannot successfully fly from the nest (fledge) until they are 26 days old or older. Most fledge at 28 to 32 days. The young don't hop around on the ground and or flutter into low bushes to be cared for by the adult birds, like American Robins do, but must be fully capable of flight to survive fledging. Adult martins won't care for a baby on the ground, so premature fledglings are doomed.
On Thursday, I had three nests with 24 day old chicks, one 22 day old clutch, one of 21 days, three of 20 days old, and one with 17 day old chicks. I had slated the 20 through 22 day olds for their second nest change, but was worried about upsetting the older clutches.
Step 1: Assemble everything I need for nest checks and changes, with some additions.
Step 2: S-l-o-w-l-y and care-fully lower the gourd rack.
Step 3: Plug the holes of the older clutches to prevent the babies from hopping out.
Round-holed Super Gourds get a 5 oz. Dixie bathroom cup stopper, which fits perfectly in the 2 1/4" diameter hole.
A natural gourd with a half-moon shaped SREH (Starling Resistant Entry Hole) gets a rag stuffed in the hole, in this case, an old bandana.
I plugged this gourd after it was apparent that no more martins were coming to live with me, and I had evicted a House Sparrow from it twice. The door stopper in this natural gourd is what I use to keep the "wrong" birds (bluebirds, tree swallows, house sparrows) out of martin gourds prior to the Purple Martins' return in the spring.
Alert moms might recognize this as a piece of a "pool noodle," a long piece of lightweight material that children use to learn to swim. You cut a slice about an inch or so thick, then transect the circle into two halves. The 2.5 inch "noodle" wedges fit perfectly in an SREH. Dummy me, I had to ask in the toy store what a "pool noodle" was and where to find it. "Toys 'R Us" is NOT my natural habitat!
Step 4: Began nest checks and changes.
These 20 day old nestlings are the perfect age for their second nest change. Up until this age, the chicks have been easy to handle, almost tame. They seem to have no fear of me or what I am doing. In the 20 day old clutches, I got an occasional squawk or fluttering attempt to get away, but that's all. Even the 21 day old clutch was no trouble.
It was the 22 day old bunch that gave me a heart attack. They were wild in every sense of the word. They screamed at me, they struggled to get away from me, one even BIT me, the ungrateful little wretch. At the sound of screaming (both the birds and mine), Holly and Grace, who were resting in the shade of the apple trees, rushed over to see what was wrong. Afraid of losing or hurting the martin baby, afraid of the dogs trying to protect me and injuring the birds, and with only two hands, I didn't know what to do. I tossed the biter into the bucket with its sibs while yelling at the dogs. They stopped, confused. Once the nestlings were all corralled, I went to the dogs to comfort them and put them back in a down-stay. I quickly changed that nest, replaced the babies, and re-hung the gourd.
Whew! It's all over, right? No. The rebels of Gourd #23 staged a riot. Two of them jumped from the entry hole and landed on the ground. The gourd rack was only 5 feet or so off the ground, so they weren't hurt, but I had an acute case of Premature Fledging on my hands. Acckk! I grabbed the two escapees, shoved them back into their gourd, and stuffed one of my work gloves in the hole. Back to the house for another bathroom cup, back to the barn for some more lengths of baler twine, and a third plug was installed.
No, there are no photos of this part of the story.
Originally, I had not intended on messing with the nest of 17 day old chicks, since the "official" rules say to change nests at 10 and 20 days, but I had found a few mites in some of the nests, and since I knew I was never going to see these chicks again, I made the executive decision to change out this nest, too. And boy, am I glad I did!
As it turns out, 17 day old Purple Martin chicks are the perfect age to perch on your finger! Younger chicks (10 days old) don't have the foot and leg strength and coordination, older chicks (20 day old) are too active and try to get away. Seventeen days is the magic number.
Even though I couldn't handle the 24 day olds, I couldn't resist a peek inside. Remember, there is a Dixie cup plug in the entry hole, so the only way out of this gourd is through the 4 inch access hole, and I am in the way, so these babies didn't try to go anywhere.
Hard to believe that these beautiful creatures, mere days away from soaring off, looked like this three weeks ago:
Three day old PUMA babies
Here's the answer to the question you asked at the beginning of the post - What are the strings for? Well, now that the nest checks and changes are complete, I have to raise the gourd rack again. But remember, I have three nests of babies - no, make that FOUR nests - that are ripe for premature fledging, and now they are stirred up by all the activity. And the screaming. What to do?
Leave the plugs in, letting the strings dangle, raise the gourd rack, and let everybody settle down for 10 or 15 minutes. Then, creep out, carefully pull out the stoppers, and tip-toe away to the shade to watch for any untoward behavior. (Holly and Grace waited inside, just in case of another rebellion.)
As the sun sets on this year's martin season, I currently have 37 Purple Martin babies that should fledge in the next two weeks. I feel like I have contributed something of value to the world, that I have given back a little bit to a planet that gives me so much. I feel - - -
Like a mother.