Emergency and Supplemental Feeding of Purple Martins in the Spring of 2006

Ken Kostka
American Swallow Conservancy
Pittsburgh, PA


As with the past several seasons, the spring of 2006 proved to be a challenging one for Purple Martins.  There was a nine day period of cool, rainy weather that lasted from May 14 until May 23. During this time, I provided supplemental and emergency feedings at four separate colony sites in southwestern Pennsylvania: Lock 4 in Natrona, Saxon Golf Course near Saxonburg, Moraine State Park in Portersville, and Gastown Racetrack in Shelocta. Duke Snyder also provided feedings at the latter two sites in addition to his own colony in Butler, PA.  Many feedings were also offered and accepted during shorter periods of poor weather at other times during the season. Extended periods of continuously cold, rainy weather will cause Purple Martins to begin starving to death after 3-4 days, because the air is depleted of flying insects – their only natural food. They can be saved from starvation by tossing large crickets into the air near the perched martins. Mealworms, then scrambled egg, can then be substituted for crickets, and the martins can eventually be trained to eat off of a stationary platform. They will then accept food on any rainy or cool day, and will even feed it to their nestlings.. For information on training your martins to take emergency and supplemental feedings, see the articles entitled 40 Starving Martins Eat 900+ Hand-Tossed Crickets and  Emergency Cricket Feeding.

One of my priorities over the past several seasons has been to transition the martins from eating crickets and mealworms, which are expensive and require overnight shipping, to eating scrambled egg, which is cheap and readily available.  My transitioning strategy had been to mix the insects in with the eggs on the platform feeder, getting martins to accidentally sample the egg while eating the insects. Although some martins did start eating egg, most would pick out the insects and ignore the eggs. The few martins that did eat egg regularly were females; perhaps the eggs were all that was left over after the adult males were done dominating the feeder. There were several instances when the martins did clean up the egg, so perhaps they simply weren’t hungry enough most of the time.  An exciting development occurred early in the season  – I discovered that tossing the egg is definitely the best method of teaching the martins to eat it. The following modified entries from my 2006 journal chronicle my supplemental feeding activities at colonies in southwestern PA. I have highlighted significant observations in red.

April 26, 2006  cool in the AM

Jeff [Hunt] and I went to the Moraine State Park colony in Portersville, PA to put up his new martin house. After arriving, I toss-fed the martins (about 20 present) and they all ate quite a bit. [I actually used a plain plastic spoon to fling crickets and mealworms into the air since the spoon-flinging gets the food items much higher that hand-tossing can, and is much easier on the arm and shoulder.] I toss-fed for quite a while, then decided to try putting egg, crickets, and mealworms in the tray, but none landed, so I decided to toss the rest of the crickets and mealworms to keep them from going to waste. (The weather was warming up – becoming sunny.)  I decided to fling some  chunks of egg, never believing they would be taken, but quite a few martins especially females, began snatching them and swallowing them immediately. They were eating big, marble-sized pieces of egg.  The key, then, it seems to getting martins to start eating egg is to toss or fling it, just like crickets or mealworms.

Of course, martins  must be well trained to accept tossed crickets and mealworms in order to accept tossed eggs.  After they are accustomed to eating the tossed egg, they have no problem taking it off of a feeder.  Perhaps the reason they take the tossed egg more readily than the tray egg is because it is in motion, or because the tossing ritual has created trust in what the tosser (landlord) is offering. There is also the possibility that some of the martins present at the Moraine State Park colony were trained at Duke Snyder’s colony ten miles away in 2005. Martins tend to congregate at sites where supplemental feedings are routinely offered during poor weather.  Duke trained his martins to eat egg in the same way – by tossing it.  He was forced to resort to tossing egg because he ran out of crickets and mealworms during a period of extended cold weather in 2005 when his martins were very close to starvation. Perhaps the martins simply need to be very desperate before trying the egg. And there definitely seems to be a component of imitation in eating the eggs, just as there was in taking tossed crickets.  Once one or two martins start eating the egg, the others seem to follow.

April 27, 2006   high of 62 F

Tray-fed mealworms and tossed egg at Saxonburg in the AM.  Many ate.

April 28, 2006  high 62 F

I tray-fed at Saxon Golf Course, Saxonburg, PA, then went to Moraine State Park and toss-fed mealworms and egg. They ate quite a bit. I then went to Dean Kildoo’s colony in Grove City and tossed crickets in an attempt to train his martins, but only 1 or 2 ate a cricket. Dean has been successful in getting his martins to eat egg off of a large, centrally-located feeder.

April 29, 2006

8:30 – 10:30 AM  Saxonburg: Many ate mealworms from feeder

May 3, 2006  Cool and rainy in the AM; nice (70’s) in the PMOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

10:00 – 11:00 AM  Saxonburg:  Fed eggs and mealworms on tray. 1 or 2 martins eating egg.

May 9, 2006  Cool in the AM; high 72

8:15 AM  Natrona: New female ate a cricket off of the feeder

10:00 AM  Moraine State Park: Tossed egg, crickets and mealworms; many martins ate.

May 12, 2006  cool in the AM

6:30 AM  Natrona: Even though it rained from noon until dark yesterday, no martins landed on the feeder to eat; these martins are not yet trained to accept supplemental feedings.

7:10 AM  Saxonburg: I put eight scrambled eggs and a pint of mealworms on the feeder.  Many martins ate; the usual frenzy.

May 13, 2006  rain

7:00 AM  Natrona: I put mealworms and crickets on the feeder. An ASY-M landed three times and took a mealworm each time. None others landed when I was there.

10:00 – 11:00 AM  Moraine State Park: Tossed egg and mealworms – many ate.

May 15, 2006  Rain and cool

6:40 AM  Natrona: I added crickets and mealworms to the feeder, causing the four martins to fly off the housing and land on the light posts.  When they returned to the housing, a House Sparrow landed on the feeder and ate a mealworm, causing an ASY-M to land on the feeder and chase the House Sparrow off, then eat a mealworm and fly back to the T-14.  A House Sparrow landed on the feeder again, causing the other ASY-M to chase it off, then eat several crickets.  So the House Sparrow stimulated these two martins to use the feeder.  I have seen three of the four martins now present at the site eat off of the feeder.

3:30 PM  Natrona:  Five martins present – 2 ASY pair and an SY-M. I put crickets and mealworms on the feeder, and all but the new ASY-F and the SY-M landed on it and ate. The new ASY-F landed and watched the others eat.

In the afternoon, I met Dean Kildoo at Moraine State Park, where we fed the martins many big chunks of scrambles egg tossed into the air.  Dean was impressed.  I gave him about 500 crickets to feed to his martins. At the Gastown Racetrack colony in Shelocta, they ate – but not nearly as voraciously, and some even turned their nose up at tossed crickets.

May 16, 2006  Cloudy, chilly, light rain.

6:30 AM  Natrona: There were two martins on the feeder when I arrived. Five total. I tossed crickets and most ate them, even the SY-M!

7:30 AM  Saxonburg: I put crickets, mealworms, and scrambled egg in the feeder, and many martins ate.

4:00 PM  Natrona:  6 martins present (a new ASY-M) and all six ate tossed crickets!  I’m catching tons of starlings (mostly female) in the House Sparrow bait traps, presumably because of the cool, rainy weather. (I rarely catch starlings in these traps).  They must be desperate for food to feed their nestlings.  I am now only tossing the crickets, because the starlings and sparrows are growing increasingly bold about landing on the feeder.

May 17, 2006  Cool, rainy, 50’s

6:30 AM  Natrona:  Eight martins on the T-14’s and almost all were eating crickets that I was tossing. It was fantastic! Ron (lock worker) got a real kick out of it.

Saxonburg: I filled the trays with egg and mealworms.  Many ate.

Moraine State Park:  I went through the first 1/2 dozen eggs in no time.  They were taking big marble-sized chunks that I flung into the air with a plastic spoon. Almost all the birds were eating the tossed egg.  I put the other 1/2 dozen into the trays along with some mealworms before I left.

Shelocta: 5-6 martins were already sitting on the feeder when I arrived. I threw a lot of mealworms, which they ate.  They wouldn’t eat any tossed egg. I put mealworm and egg on the feeder trays before I left.

3:00 PM  Natrona:  I toss-fed crickets to 5 martins.  The sun came out and it got nice for several hours in the late afternoon.

May 18, 2006  Rainy, windy, some sun, chilly, highs in the 50’s

6:30 AM  Natrona:  I tossed crickets in a light rain and almost all of the nine martins present ate.

7:00 AM  Saxonburg:  I put scrambled egg and mealworms on the feeder trays and OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAmany ate. By 3:15 PM, the martins have eaten most of the egg left in the feeder.

5:30 PM  Saxonburg:  I put more egg and mealworms in the feeder. At least 3 females and 1 male were eating egg.

7:45 PM  Natrona: 7 martins ate tossed crickets.

May 19, 2006  Cool, rainy, high 50F

6:15 AM  Natrona:  Toss-fed crickets to 7 martins.  A starling landed on the house and flew after a tossed cricket and caught it in mid-air!!!  They are really desperate. They usually just get the ones that hit the ground (along with the House Sparrows).  I definitely can’t put any food on a stationary feeder because of this.  One might think that if you are using starling-proof entrance holes, trapping of starlings is not necessary, but here is an example of why starling control is still beneficial, even thought they can be excluded from the housing.

7:00 AM  Saxonburg:  I put mealworms and egg on the feeder and the martins were on it immediately.

3:00 PM  Saxonburg:  I put more mealworms and egg on the feeder and the martins were on it right away.

3:30 PM  Natrona:  I toss-fed crickets to the 11 martins present, and they were also taking mealworms for the first time.  A Barn Swallow also took a few mealworms!  I have also had Tree Swallows take small crickets and mealworms during bad weather.  One SY-F seems distressed; she is sitting with wings drooped on the chain link fence and allows me to approach very closely. Is she starving or just stuffed with crickets and relaxing?

May 20, 2006  Cool, cloudy in AM, Some sun and nicer in PM

7:00 AM  Natrona:  I tossed a ton of mealworms and crickets to the 12 martins present.

8:00 AM  Saxonburg:  The martins seem frisky. I put egg and crickets in the feeder.  Some ate, but it was not a frenzy.

10:30 AM  Shelocta:  I tossed crickets and put egg in the feeder.

Moraine State Park:  Duke fed egg both today and yesterday.

12:00 PM  Natrona:  I toss fed crickets to the 7 martins present.

May 21, 2006  Cold!

7:30 AM  Natrona:  I toss-fed crickets to the 16 martins presentOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

8:00 PM  Natrona:  I tossed crickets to the 18 martins present!

I also fed at Saxonburg, Moraine State Park, and Shelocta.

May 22, 2006  Cold!

7:00 AM  Natrona:  I tossed crickets to the 15 martins present.

8:00PM  Natrona:  I tossed the last of the crickets to the 15 martins present.  When I ran out, I started tossing egg, and many started eat it right away!  Eventually, just about all of them were eating it.

I also fed at Saxonburg, Moraine State Park, and Shelocta.

May 23, 2006  Cool, windy, and sunny in the AM; nice in the afternoon

7:30 AM  Natrona: I tossed egg to the 12 martins present.  They ate egg exclusively.

11:00 AM  Natrona:  I toss-fed egg again.

May 24, 2006  Nice, sunny, 70’s

7:00 AM  Natrona:  I tossed egg but they didn’t take much

8:00 AM  Saxonburg:  I tossed and tray-fed eggs; a surprisingly large number ate.

May 25, 2006  Rain and mid-50’s in the AM

8:00 AM  Natrona:  The 11 martins present ate 2-3 eggs, despite yesterday being warm and sunny.

9:45 AM  Saxonburg:  There were quite a few martins on the feeder, but not many took tossed egg.

May 27, 2006 

9:30 AM  Natrona:  10 martins ate 2-3 egg

Saxon:  martins ate some egg.

June 2, 2006  Hi 70F; rainy

11:30 AM  Natrona:  Only 2-3 martins present. They ate some tossed egg.

1:00 PM  Saxonburg:  Tossed egg and put some on feeder.  Many ate.

June 4, 2006  Rained all day.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Fed martins at Saxonburg and Natrona

June 5, 2006  50F in early AM

6:30 AM  Natrona:  Tossed egg and 6-7 martins ate some.

7:00 AM  Saxonburg:  Toss-fed and tray-fed egg. All egg from yesterday was gone.

June 10, 2006  50’s; windy; chilly

AM Natrona:  Fed tossed egg several times in the morning

Saxonburg: Martins very hungry; fed tossed and tray egg several times.  They ate a lot.

June 11, 2006  high 67F;  chilly in AM

Natrona:  Martins ate some egg – not a real lot.  It seemed relatively warm compared to Saxonburg, where it was quite chilly.

9:30 AM  Saxonburg:   It was quite chilly and the martins were swarming around me as I tossed egg.  There were also many martins on the feeder, taking egg to their nestlings.  The egg was totally cleaned out from yesterday.  I put 8 scrambled eggs on the feeder and it was gone when I came back at 12:30 PM.  The Saxonburg site is only 8 miles north of the Natrona site, but it seems markedly cooler here. I wish I had a thermometer to get exact measurements.  Perhaps the river at the Natrona site acts as a heat sink, or perhaps it is more sheltered from the wind.

12:30 PM  Saxonburg:  I went back with eight more eggs and was again swarmed by martins as I tossed egg.  They also landed in large numbers on the feeder trays.

1:00 PM  Natrona:  No martins present.

June 12, 2006  high 70F

7:00 AM  Natrona:  Martins ate some toss-fed egg.  Again, not as cool here as at Saxonburg.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA8:00 AM  Saxonburg:  The martins ate a dozen scrambled eggs – both tossed and tray-fed.

9:00 AM  Crooked Creek State Park, Ford City, PA. There are no breeding martins at this site, but I have been attempting to attract martins here since 1999. There is a T-14 next to a large lake, and the dawnsong is broadcast from a nearby building.  There have been many visitors over the past few years but no nesting activity.  Several subadult males (SY-M) have been hanging around in the mornings for about a week. One of these males has an injured foot. He does not put any weight on this foot while perching, and the toes do not close around the perch. There are several feathers stuck to the injured foot. Although it doesn’t seem like he’d be able to negotiate Excluder entrances with the bad foot, he enters Excluder II’s without any problem.  I have also seen this martin at the Natrona colony, 12.5 miles south of here, where I toss feed frequently. Although the injured foot is quite distinctive, I cannot be 100% sure it is the same martin since he is not banded, so I try tossing some egg to confirm if it is the same bird. As soon as I fling the egg up with the spoon, he flies towards me and eats 4-5 chunks of egg! The other martin just sits on the house. I think this illustrates how OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAmartins trained to take supplemental feedings have the potential to spread the behavior by moving among sites.

2:30 PM  Saxonburg:  The egg in the tray is gone so I put 10 more out and there were 6-8 martins on the feeder even though the sun is shining and it’s pretty nice.

June 26, 2006

Saxonburg:  Martins ate about a dozen scrambled eggs

June 27, 2006  Rain in the AM

Saxonburg:  I put two dozen scramble eggs in the feeder.  Many martins are feeding them to their nestlings.  This past week has been very rainy and I have been putting a dozen eggs on the feeder every morning – and the martins frenzy over them. They are almost always gone the next day.

June 28, 2006  Nice weather!

10:00 AM  Saxonburg:  I put 7 eggs in the feeder and a a few martins began eating immediately, but there were quite a few left at 6:30 PM

June 29, 2006

5:00 PM  Saxonburg:  I put 5 eggs in the feeder since it was on the cool side today.  The female from WH-4 and the male from WH-18 made continuous trips to their nest compartments with egg. There are four 10 day old young in WH-4 and any young remaining in WH-18 are 28 days old.

July 4, 2006  Much rain in the AM; overcast, warm, a little windy

Natrona:  I tossed about three eggs in the AM and three eggs in the PM.  The ASY pais in WH-7 and WH-15 make constant trips to their nests with egg.  They hover over me as a signal they want more.

Saxonburg:  The martins ate 6-7 eggs between noon and 6:00 PM. I put another 8-9 out at 7:00 PM.

July 6, 2006  cooler, windy, high 75F

10:00 AM  Saxonburg:  They ate some egg.

July 7, 2006 Warm, sunny

10:00AM  Saxonburg:  Fed eggs

July 12, 2006  rained off and on all day

Saxonburg:  I put 12 eggs on the Saxonburg feeder and the martins were all over it. It was almost all gone the next day.

Natrona: I tossed quite a few chunks of egg to the martins. At least one parent from each of the three nests was taking it to their nestlings.

July 23, 2006  cool in the AM,  hot in the PM

10:30 AM  Natrona:  I toss-fed egg to the martins in the north yard where I have erected a new T-14 as part of the 2 year relocation project. This is about 200 ft. from where the colony is located.  I strongly suspect that some of the martins were taking the egg to their already-fledged young, because they would fly off over the town or downriver with large chunks of egg in their beaks. The SY pair from WH-24 was still bringing it to the cavity, where the young had not fledged.  The martins didn’t take long to see me in the north yard and to start taking the egg when I started to fling it overhead. I also moved the feeder to the new location. I will toss-feed in the new location next spring in an attempt to get as many martins as possible to move over to the new T-14 in the north yard.

July 28, 2006  Rain in the AM,  80’s

9:30 AM  Natrona:  7-8 martins fluttered above me (looking for egg) when I arrived, so I went home and scrambled eight eggs and returned. I tossed them next to the new T-14 in the north yard and many martins ate and took egg to their young.

July 29, 2006 

9:00 AM  Natrona:  The martins ate some tossed egg

July 30, 2006

9:00 AM  Natrona:  A few martins ate some egg.


The Purple Martins colonies at Saxon Golf Course in Saxonburg, Lock 4 in Natrona, Gastown Racetrack in Shelocta, and Moraine State Park (North Shore) in Portersville were trained to accept scrambled egg in place of crickets and mealworms as a supplemental food source during times of poor weather during the spring of 2006 in southwestern Pennsylvania.   These martins had previously been trained to accept large crickets and mealworms flung  into the air by way of a simple plastic spoon or placed in a stationary feeding platform. An attempt was made to transition the martins to eating scrambled egg by mixing the egg in with the insects on the feeder, but most martins would pick out the insects, leaving the egg behind. It was discovered that the best way to get the martins to eat the egg (which is much less expensive and much more readily available than insects) was to fling it into the air with a plastic spoon, just like the crickets and mealworms. The egg is taken more readily if the martins are very desperate for food.  However, once accustomed to eating scramble egg, they will take it readily, and even accept it during times of good weather, especially when they are feeding nestlings or fledglings.

One or more martins at the Natrona, Pa colony accepted some form of supplemental feeding on 27 separate days between May 6, 2006 and July 30, 2006. One or more martins at the Saxonburg, Pa colony accepted some form of supplemental feeding on 29 separate days between April 27, 2006 and July 12, 2006.  Food could not be placed in the stationary feeders at the Natrona colony because the numerous European Starlings and House Sparrows would land and eat it. It seems reasonable to conclude that martins trained to accept supplemental feeding will experience higher survival and reproductive success.

An easy way to prepare scrambled eggs for martins:  Place 6-10 eggs and a small amount of water (1/4 to 1/3 cup) in a glass bowl and stir to mix. Place bowl in microwave on high for 1-2 minutes, then mix and repeat as many times as necessary until eggs are cooked.  Marble or pea-sized chunks of scrambled egg can be flung high into the air with a simple plastic spoon.


While supplemental feeding has saved countless martins
from starvation, an occasional martin still perishes during
periods of extended poor weather.  Here, a dead ASY-M
has been placed atop a pile of egg cartons.