Purple Backpackers Journey Home
Disney Conservation Fund and Tom Ridge Environmental Center Foundation Fund Ground Breaking Scientific Study with GPS Tracking
By Joe Siegrist - PMCA President
Every April, like clockwork, the skies over Erie begin to fill with Purple Martins. Their homecoming comes at the end of a 5000-mile journey from the heart of the Amazon Rainforest. If you're lucky you'll spot one with a bright orange bracelet on its leg and a tiny antenna protruding from the feathers on its back. Those birds are a select few wearing tiny GPS recorders as part of a ground breaking scientific study conducted by the Purple Martin Conservation Association (PMCA), an international non-profit headquartered in Erie. That research, funded in part by the Disney Conservation Fund, the Tom Ridge Environmental Center Foundation, and PMCA members is aiming to understand what's happening to these beloved birds.
Purple Martins, voracious consumers of insects eating more than 260 billion insects each year, are experiencing a widespread population decline. In Pennsylvania, martin numbers have dropped 75% since the 1960's. A combination of nesting habitat loss and competition from invasive species (House Sparrows and European Starlings) have caused martins to completely rely on humans to provide artificial nesting structures. Every martin in the sky east of the Rockies is the result of the valiant work of dedicated human caretakers. However, despite their best efforts, the decrease in martins is ongoing.
The research conducted by the PMCA on Presque Isle is helping better understand the ecology of martins. The GPS location data brought home in those backpacks is shedding light on the life cycle of Purple Martins after they leave. So much is known about their lives here in North America, but their lives the rest of the year remain a mystery.
When PMCA researchers spot the returning martins, they rush to recapture them and the data contained in their backpacks is downloaded and analyzed. That data tells the story of where they’ve been and when they were there. An example of habitat critical to martins is the cattail islands at the head of Presque Isle Bay where tens of thousands of Purple Martins congregate in late summer before starting their migration.
After using this data to identify important habitat, the PMCA is working to identify risks to that habitat. In fact, PMCA researchers recently returned from an expedition on the Amazon River exploring GPS locations from previously tracked martins. Their findings are paving the way for a better understanding of the risks and life of America's most loved backyard bird.
To witness why Purple Martins have such a devoted following, and possibly see some martin research taking place, visit the PMCA's study colonies on Presque Isle. The best spots for martin viewing are at Rotary Pavilion and West Pier. Those colonies will be steadily filling with excited, but exhausted, new arrivals through May.
Visit the Purple Martin Conservation Association's website at www.purplemartin.org to learn more about Martins, how to start your own colony, and how to support the PMCA's research and education efforts.