Purple Martin Restoration and Research Project; Hacking in Ligionier, PA. 1985.

Lysle S. Sherwin, Executive Director, Loyalhanna Watershed Association
Dennis Jones, Pennsylvania Game Commission
photographs by Barry Moore and Ligonier Echo
August 12, 1985


Hack1Ligonier, PA – Swallows return to Capistrano and vultures to Hinckley, OH, but townspeople in Ligonier are wondering if the Purple Martins will come back to nest on the picturesque town square “Diamond” of their Westmoreland County community.

Purple Martins, the largest member of the swallow family, which once nested here by the hundreds not too many years ago have declined to only one breeding pair by the spring of 1985.  In a unique partnership of private and state wildlife conservation agencies, the Loyalhanna Watershed Association, Inc. and the Southwest Division, Pennsylvania Game Commission initiated a “Purple Martin Research and Restoration Project” aimed at rebuilding the colony.

According to Lysle S. Sherwin, Executive Director of the Loyalhanna Watershed Association, the project actually got its start through an osprey nesting platform project in which the two organizations are involved.  He explained, “Dennis Jones, Land Management Supervisor in the Game Commission’s Ligonier office and I attended the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania’s banquet to hear Dr. Larry Rymon, East Stroudsburg University, speak on the osprey reintroduction program.  Like the Commonwealth’s Bald Eagle restoration effort, fledgling ospreys are reared and liberaterd to the wild – a process called ‘hacking,’ to eventually return and nest in their natal area.  The plight of Ligonier’s Purple Martins came up in conversation and Rymon suggested the hacking technique as a possible solution.”

The presence of wild adult birds to act as mentors for the fledglings was though to be an important factor in a successful hacking attempt.  Although there was great uncertainty about the prospects for any HackHouses2of the native Ligonier birds to return in 1985 since the population has apparently dropped so low the prior year, much had to be accomplished in a scant two or three weeks time before migrants were due back from their winter range in Brazil.

Application was made for the necessary U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service collection permits and advice sought on food, rearing methods and other aspects from biologists and ornithologists at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Pittsburgh Aviary, Powdermill Nature Reserve, and the Ligonier Valley Field Research Station of Carnegie Museum of Natural History.  With no example to follow, wire enclosed hacking boxes similar in appearance to traditional Purple Martin houses had to be designed from scratch and built at two locations – one near the lone active martin house on the town square and another at the Game Commission office, where it was hoped a new colony could be established.

It was recognized that the project would be labor-intensive, involving daily dawn-to-dusk care and feeding of young birds for several weeks or more.  The Watershed Association made a commitment to hire two shifts of temporary employees using proceeds from the Masters Wildlife Art Show it sponsors annually in September to fund payroll costs.  Five students from either St. Vincent College (Latrobe), West Virginia University, or Ligonier Valley Senior High School, having majors or interests in wildlife management, biology, or veterninary science were employed for six HackStudentsweeks.
Perhaps the most important single element – a source of fledgling Purple Martins was eventually pinpointed with the help of Dale Sheffler, Chief of Wildlife Research for the Game Commission.  A rapidly expanding flock was located at the Shenango Reservoir Wildlife Management Area in Mercer County, PA.  It was determined that the Shenango flock could provide up to 30 fledglings without adverse effects on a viable colony.

The arrival of one wild pair and an unmated straggler at the Ligonier colony in mid-May triggered the decision to go ahead with the hacking attempt.  Through frequent contact with Shenango personnel on the status of egg-laying, incubation and hatching, a collection date of June 18 was targeted in order to obtain birds at the optimum age of 7-10 days.  Fledglings in this age class have had sufficient parental contact to be imprinted as Purple Martins but are believed to be not yet imprinted to a specific nest site and its surroundings.

An initial group of 13 fledglings, aged 7-14 days, was transported to Ligonier on June 18, and the second contingent of 15 was delivered nine days later.  Mealworm grubs and maggots hand-fed in unlimited amounts were readily accepted, so much so that some became overweight and too heavy to fly.  A change in diet to supplement the fat-rich insect ration with high protein mash and occasional raw hamburger soon brought the birds into flight condition.

From the outset, the wild martins in the area interacted with the fledglings by frequently circling the hackin box, calling and landing nearby.  The first “hacked” bird took flight on July 3rd and HackManPlatformimmediately joined the wild flock to the great satifaction of the project’s crew.  A second ledt three days later, and then each in turn through the next several weeks.  For later identification, birds had been banded by Robert Mulvihill of Powdermill with standard metal leg bands and also plastic bands color-coded to mark them as Ligonier birds.

By the end of July, 25 birds had flown of which 16 are considered successful fledges and possibly as many as 23 have survived in the wild.  Confirmations are based on band records of birds that returned to the hack box later for free meals or counts made of roosting birds.  Other steps are being taken to address some root causes for the decline of Ligonier’s colony.  Tree limbs encroaching on the towns martin boxes and impeding the free flight space preferred by Purple Martins are being removed and new boxes erected on building roofs.  Although it won’t be known until next spring if the fledged birds will return to nest, the first phase of the two year project is a success and people in Ligonier are optimistic that, indeed, the Purple Martins will come back.

[end of article]

The following article appeared in the Pennsylvania Game News, Vol. 58(4) April 1987 (author unknown) with several photographs from Barry Moore:

   HackFeedNestling Following on the success of the hacking technique for reestablishing Bald Eagles, ospreys, and Peregrine Falcons, The [Pennsylvania] Game Commission and the Loyalhanna Watershed Association are using the same procedure to help restore one of nature’s smallest avian predators – Purple Martins. Because the consume large numbers of insects, Purple Martins are popular birds.  Many people maintain elaborate nesting boxes to have the birds around.  Martin numbers, however, have dropped dramatically in recent years. This is attributed to successive cool wet springs which prohibited martins from finding food for themselves and their young, and to House Sparrows and starlings which often usurp martins’ nest box homes.
In each of the last two summers, 28 young martins, seven to ten days of age, have been obtained from thriving colonies nearby and placed in modified homes atop the agency’s  Southwest Region office in Ligonier.  The birds were raised by hand until self-sufficient and then released.  One released in 1985 returned after wintering in South America, making all those associated with the project most optimistic”


Additional details  by Ken Kostka, Purple Martin Preservation Alliance:

On August 27, 1997, I visited Ligonier, PA to talk to the hacking project organizers – Lysle Sherwin and Dennis Jones – in an attempt to gather more information about the project. There were two hacking sites, each with one or more “hacking houses”. One site was in the Ligonier town square “Diamond” where the one wild pair of martins nested in 1985. The other site was the rooftop of the Pennsylvania Game Commission headquarters three blocks away.   Lysle gave me copies of all the documentation he had, and I have reprinted most of it here.  (Over ten years had passed and certain details of the project had been forgotten or were never documented.) The hacked martins returned to the hacking boxes to feed, but not to sleep, for the enclosure prevented entry. They hung around for about one week. The one wild pair that nested in the Ligonier town square in the first year of the project (1985) successfully hatched four eggs, but no data is available as to whether those nestlings fledged. In any case, no martins nested at either project site (the town square or the Game Commission office rooftop) in 1986 or 1987. Only one returning hacked martin was spotted in 1986, and none in 1987.   Dawnsong was played near the martin house on the rooftop of the Game Commission headquarters in 1986 and 1987.

Analysis and discussion

Dennis Jones did inform me that the trees in the Town Square “Diamond” that were overhanging the martin houses were never trimmed back, as was requested by the Game Commission. This tree encroachment was probably one factor in the colony’s decline as well as the failure of any hacked birds to return to these boxes.  Another may be the fact that the martin housing in the town square was not easily manageable. The houses did not raise and lower vertically to allow for easy eviction of starlings and House Sparrows. The fact that neither hacking site was prime martin habitat (open areas near water) may have contributed to the failure of the project. The fact that the martins could not return to the housing to sleep may have also been a negative. HY martins usually return to sleep in their natal hosuing for about a week after fledging. Perhaps there is some type of site-bonding that could not occur in the small number of martins that do return to nest at their natal colony site.

The following article appeared in the Ligonier Echo in July