Purple Martins Get Prime Living Quarters on Campus

20-Apr-2012 2:00 PM EDT

University of Alabama

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  • newswise-fullscreen Purple Martins Get Prime Living Quarters on Campus

    Credit: University of Alabama

    Dr. Michael Steinberg stands near one of the birdhouses designed to invite purple martins to stay.

Newswise — A University of Alabama geographer and ornithologist is leading an effort to build houses on campus for the purple martin, a popular migratory bird.

Dr. Michael Steinberg stands near one of the birdhouses designed to invite purple martins to stay.

Dr. Michael Steinberg, associate professor in New College and geography, has set up two complexes of birdhouses – one near the Lakeside Community in the northwest area of campus, and one near Capstone Village on the east side of campus.

Steinberg has selected proven birdhouse designs to meet the needs of the purple martin, including the requisite size of holes and nesting room.

“This is part of my community outreach and research agenda to provide more nesting opportunities for popular bird species,” Steinberg said. “Purple martins are one of the most desired birds. They have a nice, warbling voice, they eat a lot of insects, and they’re social birds.

“However, like many neotropical migrant birds, their numbers have declined in recent decades. So part of the motivation in this project is to provide more housing opportunities in this area for martins and record base-line population data for this species.”

Steinberg is collaborating with Duane Lamb, assistant vice president for facilities and grounds, on creating the sites for the purple martins. He also worked with the UA Facilities and Grounds carpenters in constructing the bird houses for the purple martins.

One facilities member in particular – Timothy Skelton – helped Steinberg; Skelton is a “purple martin landlord” who has bird houses on his own property. In planning the perfect hangout for the purple martins, Steinberg consulted research on the Web, which people in the community may emulate.

The purple martin (photo courtesy of Purple Martin Conservation Association).

The purple martin’s migratory pattern takes it down to Brazil in the winter months, then back to the United States around March. So, they’re in town now and looking for places to nest. When they return, cities in the U.S. South often mark their arrival.

As of mid-April, UA carpenters had constructed six houses, each with 12 nesting compartments. Purple martins also like nesting in natural and plastic gourds, Steinberg said. The natural gourd tradition was started centuries ago by Native Americans.

Steinberg and Skelton have placed an additional eight-gourd rack at the Community Garden Plots in Sokol Park in Tuscaloosa.

“They’re very graceful fliers,” Steinberg said. “When they come back, birders just go crazy over them. Some martin landlords, such as Tim Skelton, set up colonies with dozens of gourds.”

His plans reach further – he’d like to see these bird houses spring up all over Tuscaloosa County.

“Tim Skelton and I are trying to organize the construction of martin houses around Tuscaloosa,” Steinberg said. “So the campus was the first phase of that. We’re going to put more gourds up in the Community Garden. We’d like for Tuscaloosa to become the purple martin capital of the South.”

For information on how to join the effort to provide homes for purple martins, contact Steinberg at mksteinberg@as.ua.edu or 205/348-0349.

New College and the geography department are part of UA’s College of Arts and Sciences, the University’s largest division and the largest liberal arts college in the state. Students from the College have won numerous national awards including Rhodes Scholarships, Goldwater Scholarships and memberships on the USA Today Academic All American Team.

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