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Banding Cape Cod Purple Martins

An update on Wellfleet’s Purple Martin colony:

In May of 2018, I wrote a column about a martin colony in Wellfleet. For those folks who don’t recall my column of May 2018, or remember any part of 2018, here’s a quick recap.

For the last decade or so, Mashpee’s Mary Keleher has orchestrated the return of Purple Martins to the Upper Cape. Mary’s efforts have been so successful that Mashpee now has more martins than there is room for. To handle the overflow, a new martin setup was built at Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. This was a bit of a gamble since martins historically have avoided the Outer Cape. For the first few years the new setup was nothing more than a decoration, as no birds used it. Then, in 2016, a single pair of martins finally moved in. This was big news, but it wasn’t the large colony Mary had predicted…until this year.

One morning I received an email from Audubon’s science coordinator, and all-around smart guy, Mark Faherty. Mark reported that seven pairs of martins had moved in this spring and many of them had already hatched chicks. This is very exciting. It meant that the Outer Cape officially had its own Purple Martin colony. Mark also mentioned that he had banded some of the chicks. This info also caught my attention, as I would love to see martin banding in action. I immediately wrote back asking if I might participate in the next banding session. He told me the date and time, and I was so there.

In the old days, martin houses looked like stately Southern mansions, but in recent years, gourd-style setups have become popular. The Wellfleet colony consists of twelve large plastic gourds hanging on aluminum crossarms. It’s not very attractive, but the birds seem to love it. Here’s something else martins love: people. The sanctuary sits on 937 acres, but the gourd rack is only a few feet away from the active nature center. All day long people come and go and the martins are totally cool with all of it.

When we arrived, Mark waved us over to the banding table. On the table were two sets of bands, some weird tools and a small scale. Next to the table was a guy wearing a shirt with bananas printed on it (really). He held a clipboard to record the band numbers as Mark called them out. There was only one thing missing. The martins, right? Nope. We were waiting for the kids. Kids? No one told me there would be kids. Apparently, this whole demonstration wasn’t for me, but for the ten-year-olds at the nature camp. My wife, a retired schoolteacher, was thrilled to see them, but I wasn’t. The last thing I needed in the middle of the summer was to get kid germs on me. I kept a safe distance away.

Mark lowered the rack of gourds, picked one out and carried it over to the table. He opened the gourd and reached in real casually, as if he was reaching into a cookie jar for ginger snaps. He explained that each baby bird would receive two bands. There was a blue band to indicate that the bird came from Wellfleet and a silver band, which was issued by the Bird Banding Laboratory in Maryland. The silver bands have numbers that are exclusive to each bird. The number was read aloud and recorded on the clipboard by the guy in the banana shirt. (I’ve gotta get one of those.)

Mark Faherty is a very amusing guy, but most of his jokes, including one about social security, were lost on the ten-year-olds. About five minutes into the demonstration I made a little wisecrack and the kids started laughing at it…or so I thought. It turns out they weren’t laughing at me, but instead at the baby bird that had just pooped on Mark’s shirt. From then on, anytime Mark wanted to get the kids’ attention, he’d make a reference to the poop on his shirt. (When it comes to ten-year-olds, poop humor tops social security jokes every time. Remember that.)

After each bird was fitted with two new “bracelets,” Mark held it out so the kids could have a closer look or even pet it. You might think this would stress out the baby birds, but instead they leaned forward with their mouths open. They didn’t know who these kids were, but if they had food, they wanted it. When the show was over, Mark placed each nestling back into the gourd and returned it to the colony. Just across the marsh from the martins are nesting Willets. If you get anywhere near the Willets, they’ll come screaming at you like psychotic banshees, but Purple Martins are totally chill around people. There was no screaming or attacking while Mark inspected all of the other guards. The adults just flew around and patiently waited, before eventually settling down as if nothing ever happened. (Although, I’m sure they had questions as to where those shiny new bracelets came from. Those baby birds had a lot of explaining to do.)

The nesting chickadees in my yard have been gone since June, but in early August this martin colony was still very active. This means anyone who wants to see Purple Martins should visit the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. And here’s the best part: the colony is before you get to the admission counter. This means you can see the martins and not even have to pay…but we all should pay so don’t cheap out. Without funding, the sanctuary and the nature camp for the kids (germs and all) would not exist. And most importantly, without money, Mark wouldn’t be able to buy a new shirt, and believe me he needs one. Perhaps even a lovely banana shirt. I hear they’re trendy.