Feeding Blackie: Supplemental Feeding at a Non-breeding Purple Martin Site in 2010

Ken Kostka
American Swallow Conservancy
Pittsburgh, PA


For the past six years I have used the supplemental feeding technique at two medium sized Purple Martin colonies near my home – the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lock and Dam #4 colony in Natrona, 1.5 miles to the southeast on the Allegheny River – and the Saxon Golf Course colony in Saxonburg, 7 miles to the northwest. I will refer to these colonies as Lock 4 and Saxon G.C. They are the only two established colonies within about 20 miles of my home. I make it a point to toss-feed (as opposed to tray-feed) at the closer colony (Lock 4) for two reasons. First, there is an abundance of European Starlings, and although they cannot nest in the martin housing because of starling-proof Excluder entrance holes, they have learned to eat eggs from the trays even better than the martins. Second, I always felt that the act of toss-feeding created a bond between me and the martins, and I wanted the martins at the nearby Lock 4 site to associate me (not the feeding trays) with food, so that they might be more likely to accept egg from me at a different location. With that goal in mind, for the past couple of years, I have made it a point to wear fluorescent orange (either a shirt or vest) while toss-feeding so that the martins would associate that color with being fed as well. My hope was that if any hungry martins showed up in my backyard, where I’ve been attempting to start a colony, they would be more likely to accept feeding from me if I was wearing orange. If these visiting martins got into the habit of frequenting my backyard for feedings, that might increase my chances of establishing a colony, or so I hoped.

In 2010, that strategy paid off….sort of. Although I did not get any visiting martins to nest, I became the first “feeding site” that was not also a breeding site (to the best of my knowledge). On 11 different days between May 10th and June 17th, one or more martins solicited or accepted supplemental feedings consisting of scrambled egg tossed into the air with a plastic spoon in my backyard, a non-breeding site consisting of two T-14’s with gourds, which is 1.5 miles from the Lock 4 colony in Natrona. An adult male (ASY-M) that I came to call “Blackie” was the most frequent feeder/visitor, and he attempted to recruit several females to the site, but none stayed to nest. On unusually cool or rainy days, Blackie actually solicited or accepted feedings throughout the day. I was also toss-feeding scrambled egg at the Lock 4 and the Saxon G.C. colonies on the worst of these days.

What follows are my journal entries regarding incidents of supplemental feeding in my backyard on these days.  I have also included journal entries of supplemental feeding activity at the two closest colonies. Incidents of supplemental feedings in my backyard site are in red. All journal entries are for my backyard location unless otherwise noted.

[Terms & abbreviations used in my journal entries: ASY-M = After Second Year Male. This is an adult all-purple (actually blue/black) male. Females and young males have a mostly whitish/grayish underside. I sometimes refer to young males and females as non-ASY males when I cannot determine exactly what they are; WH = Wooden House  (my wooden houses are T-14’s). WH-2, for example, means compartment #2 of a T-14.)]

 May 8, 2010. cold front moved in. Very very windy. On the cool side.  I cranked the houses down in my backyard. The martins at the nearby Lock 4 and Saxon G.C. colonies certainly got little or nothing to eat today.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 May 9, 2010. Sunday. Cold. Windy. High 49. I toss-fed egg at 7:00 AM at Lock 4.  Many martins ate. Toss-fed and tray-fed at Saxon GC at 6:00- 6:30 PM.  Then toss-fed again at 7 pm at Lock 4.

 May 10, 2010.  30’s in the morning. sunny. Frost last night

I’ve had the dawnsong off and the houses lowered since Saturday afternoon. I cranked them up about 9:00 am, and re-started the dawnsong.

 9:10 am. I am stunned to see an ASY pair on house #1! The female is on the top perch and the male is on several porches and flying around. Neither is banded. I am on my way to L/D 4 to feed the martins, so I decide to flip a piece of egg, and the male snatches it out of the air and eats it! Awesome! I am wearing my orange vest. The female is suddenly gone at 9:15. (I did not see her inside any compartments but she might have been inside one)

The male stayed at the site and flew around a lot, landing on everything. He was harassed by a red-winged blackbird while in flight! He went into compartment 28 (WH-28) for a few minutes.

9:30 am. I left to feed at Lock 4.

9:40 – 10:00 am. Lock 4. Tons of birds mob me as I toss-feed, but most only eat a few pieces then turn away at the last minute. It is sunny and getting warmer. LOTS of martins on both houses!

10:05 am.  The male is still there!!! He is sitting on the porch of WH-14 and flies at me as I get out of the van with the orange vest on. I toss a piece of egg and he snatches and eats it!

10:20 am. The female shows up (maybe she was inside a compartment?). The male lands on porch of WH-2 [Note: WH-2 =  Wooden House (T-14) compartment #2], vocalizing loudly, and the female attempts to land there too, but a male House Sparrow harasses her and she lands on a perching rod. The male goes into WH-2 and makes the “stick-on-a-fence” vocalization while the female perches on a perching rod and calmly preens. The male house sparrow is bouncing around, getting very close to the female, but never harasses her. He is driving me crazy and I try to get a bead on him from the windows of the house.  But I am afraid to shoot for fear of scaring the martins, especially the female. This house sparrow just showed up today…along with the martins!

 May 11, 2010.  cold, rainy, high 50F

8:55 am. ASY-M (“Blackie”) is on House #1. 46 degrees. I toss egg from the back porch and he eats 4 pieces in a row!!!

9:02 am. He comes back and eats another piece, then disappears. Is not present at 10:50 am when I leave.

3:00 pm. When I arrive home, Blackie is sitting on a porch of house #1. He ate 4 pieces of tossed egg in a row.

4:00 pm. Saxon G.C.. Toss-fed and tray fed the martins. One bird pooped large as it was flying off the house toward me. When I crank the housing down, I see egg that the rain may have softened up. I’ll bet some martins were eating it.

5:00 pm. When I got back from feeding at Saxon GC, I walked around the housing with the orange vest on and “clucked” (made a clucking sound with my mouth/tongue). Blackie appeared and took 4 pieces of egg. A few minutes later, I saw him sitting on the overhead wires near the street. He may have been sitting there when I went out to feed him. I use clucking sound to call him in for feedings in the future.

5:30 pm. Lock 4.  Lots of martins.  Toss-fed a ton of egg.

6:00 pm. When I get back from Lock 4, Blackie is sitting on the top perch of house #1. He snatches two pieces of tossed egg.  I am feeding at 3 sites now: Saxon GC, Lock 4, and my own backyard. !! Woo-hoo!

May 12, 2010  Damp, cool, some rain, mid-50’s. . High 55-57.

8:30 am. There is a banded SY-F with the ASY-M (Blackie). She is yellow T911 and was banded at the Shelocta site in 2009 (in late June). At 9:00 am they are both sitting on the overhead wires.. They depart about 9:10 am.

10:15ish am. Blackie is back with a new, unbanded female. They will be here all day!!!  They enter WH-12 and WH-13. At 10:45, they are sitting on the porch of WH-14. At 12:10, another ASY-M briefly appears and perches on the decoy house.

I notice the female has taken to sitting on the porches of two compartments that both have mirrors mounted inside (blocking) the entrance. These are WH-27 and WH-20. I see the male on WH-20. She also seems to favor WH-23, which is the middle compartment with two decoys mounted on the porch below, and 1 decoy mounted on the roof peak (out over the porch) of the compartment above (WH-22, which also has a mirrored entrance). I tried tossing giant mealworms many times but neither went after them. Ordered crickets! Blackie eats some egg all day – from dawn to dusk.

7:55 PM.  I come home for lunch and the pair exits WH-23, then flies off. I have been playing the PMCA daytime chatter exclusively during the day. (and putting the Whitethroat dawnsong on for the morning).

May 13, 2010. a little nicer but still damp, a little windy. 55 degrees at 10:30 am. Its supposed to hit 70 today.  60 degrees at 2:00 pm. 70 degrees later – sunny. Nice.

GoogleEarthview7:30 am. Switch from the dawnsong to the chatter, look out the window, and the pair flies into the site, making a bit of a ruckus. As I am looking out the window at the top of the stairs, the male (Blackie) flies right at me!!!!!!! –  he must see me through the window!!! He wants fed !!!  I immediately go down and toss him a few chunks of egg.

8:00 am. Lock 4. I took 9 scramble eggs and the martins ate every one! They were hungry, but I did see some normal poop, so I think they were getting something yesterday

The male is not getting in the face of the female as much (and singing, displaying, etc…) It’s as if they have bonded and he doesn’t need to try so hard anymore. Could they have mated already, and, if so, is that when the female decides to stay with him?

About 10:00 am, I put some primo nest material into the bare spot (from the fire) next to House #2.  Hopefully, the female may find this enticing enough to start gathering material for a nest.

The male (Blackie) continues to eat a piece of egg here and there – not as much as yesterday.

3:30 pm. Martins not present. I lowered the housing about 1/3rd of the way because of possible high winds tonight. I could have waited, but I don’t want to do it while they are present, so this seems like a good time. I also lowered the housing at Lock 4 and at the Saxon Golf Course colony by about 1/3.

7:20 – 8:00 pm. The martins are not present. I raise the housing back to full height since the wind threat is no more. I also notice that the vocalizations are not playing. I accidentally forgot to plug the power cord back into the timer after changing from the dawnsong to the daytime vocalizations. The daytime chatter probably stopped about noon to 1:00 pm. I don’t know what impact this may have had. I don’t think the martins spent the night.

May 14, 2010 Warm muggy

6:00 – 7:30 am.  Martins not present. Raised housing back to full height at Lock 4 at about 7:00 am.  Raised housing back to full height at Saxon GC at about 7:45 am.

May 15, 2010  Sat. Nice warm, sunny. No martins.

May 16, 2010.  Sun Nice. warm, sunny. No martins.

May 17, 2010.  Cool. cloudy. 50’s. I suspect Blackie may show up looking for a handout, so I cook up a few eggs. It rained ALL day.

11:00 AM. Blackie (ASY-M) shows up and takes 3 pieces of egg that I toss  up with a plastic spoon.

1:43 pm. heavy drizzle. Blackie eats two pieces of egg  (tossed). I tried tossing crickets but he didn’t take them. He’s only accustomed to eating egg!

3:17 pm. There is a pair here…Blackie and the female, I think. He didn’t eat anything…maybe one piece. They sat on the Lincoln St. overhead electrical wires and were chased off by a grackle.

3:41 pm. There is a pair sitting on the Lincoln St. wires again.

4:51 pm. Blackie eats one piece of tossed egg.

6:50 pm. There are two martins flying around. One definitely eats egg…maybe both!!

May 18, 2010. Cloudy, cool, high 55.

8:30 am. Blackie eats one piece of egg and is chased by a grackle.

9:15 am. Lock 4. I toss fed about 12 eggs. There are a TON of martins there. (50-60).

11:30 am. Saxon GC. Toss-fed a lot of egg and put 2 scrambled eggs in each tray. (4 trays) LOTS of martins. cleaned out 2 sparrow nests with eggs (no martin eggs yet)

12:52 pm. Blackie eats 1 piece of egg.

3:44 pm. 2 martins present. One is an adult male (ASY-M) and one is a either a subadult male or a female (non-ASY-M, but I’m pretty sure it’s a female) BOTH eat tossed egg. Maybe the female has finally learned to eat tossed egg – after seeing Blackie eat a lot – and maybe she was at Lock 4 today when I toss-fed and there was a feeding frenzy!!!!

3:54 pm. The martins are cavorting high up in the air to the southwest. It is sunny and milder.  There are a lot of swifts foraging also. It looks like it will really get nice but never does.  It stays cool and cloudy after about an hour of mild, sunny weather.

5:46 pm. There are 3 martins. ALL ate some tossed egg!!!

5:56 pm. 2 martins cavorting at about 75 – 100 ft.

6:20 pm. 2 martins flying around. BOTH ate at least 1 piece of egg! I think one of these martins that I’ve been seeing all afternoon is a female, but can’t be sure since it’s too dark and cloudy – and it’s hard to see the underside color when looking up against the sky.

6:30ish pm. 2 martins at about 50-75 ft. but neither comes down to eat.

6:51 pm. 2 martins (only 1 ate egg, I think)

7:11 pm. I was able to look with a pair of binoculars as the two martins were in the air, and one is a female. They both ate a piece of egg!!!

It will be cool tomorrow morning, and I’m betting the pair comes up to feed in the AM !!!

May 19, 2010. cloudy. 54 degrees at 9:30 am. 59 degrees at 1:05 pm

9:30 am. non-ASY-M eats 2 pieces of tossed egg

9:34 am. Same non-ASY-M eats a third piece

12:37 pm. A pair is investigating the site (the male is an ASY – yellow E850 – seen at Lock 4) when Blackie comes in and takes some tossed egg. This prompts the pair to also take some tossed egg. Not long after, one ASY-M chases the other ASY-M away, and the female leaves also. [it was later confirmed that this pair – at least the male – nested in Gourd #8 at Lock 4)

May 20, 2010.

9:12 am. 2 non-ASY-M (either an SY pair or two SY-M) eat a lot of tossed egg

June 7, 2010. cool in the AM, then nice

8:51 am. An ASY-M (I’m assuming it’s Blackie) takes 2-3 pieces of tossed egg.

9:22 am. ASY-M takes two pieces of tossed egg.

10:25 am. ASY-M takes 2-3 pieces of tossed egg

June 9, 2010. rain in the AM.

9:30 am. An ASY-M eats 4 pieces of tossed egg.

12:20 pm. During a period of rain, ASY-M Blackie brings in 2 SY-M. Blackie eats 2-3 pieces of tossed egg. The SY-M do not eat; they land on the overhead wires along road. Blackie leaves.

2:04 pm. I notice a martin sitting on the overhead wires; when I step out onto the back porch with the egg, Blackie swoops in and eats 3 pieces of tossed egg!

June 17, 2010. Cool/Chilly in the AM

10:50 am. Blackie (ASY-M) arrives and eats 2-3 pieces of tossed scrambled egg.

 [end of journal entries]

Summary:  I toss-fed Purple Martins in my backyard, a “non-breeding site,” on 12 different days between May 10th and June 17th of the year 2010. There were a total of about 30 separate feeding incidents.  A total of at least 4, but probably 5-6 different individual martins accepted supplemental feedings in my backyard on at least one occasion.  It was not possible to state an exact number since they were not all banded. One unbanded adult male that I named “Blackie” fed on most of these days and even solicited feedings by flying towards me when I walked out of my back door. Another one of the martins that accepted tossed egg in my backyard was a banded adult male that nested at the nearby Lock 4 colony. It is likely that most or all of the martins I fed in my backyard were from this nearby colony, where, for the past several years, I have provided numerous supplemental feedings during periods of cold, wet weather while wearing bright orange clothing.  My strategy of wearing fluorescent orange while toss-feeding at the nearest colony (1.5 miles away) seems to have helped in getting visiting martins to recognize, accept, and even solicit supplemental feedings in my backyard.


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

The Martin-Killing Weather of April 2007

Emergency Cold Weather Feeding in the Spring of 2005

“Keep true to the dreams of thy youth.” – Friedrich von Schiller  German dramatist & poet (1759 – 1805)