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There Are Purple Martins on Cape Cod

Dear Bird Folks,

I grew up in the Midwest, where each spring we would welcome the Purple Martins back. Then I moved to Cape Cod and haven’t seen a martin since. Are there any Purple Martins on the Cape or have I simply moved out of their range?

– Molly, Sandwich, MA


Yes, there are, Molly,

There are Purple Martins on Cape Cod, but not a lot. Lack of proper housing and our cold springs make it tough for these insect-loving birds. For a while it looked as if the birds had totally given up on the Cape. But then, a few years ago, a local birder and soon-to-be godmother of Cape Cod’s Purple Martins, Mary Keleher, discovered a small colony on a private golf course in Mashpee. With Mary’s help that colony began to flourish. But she wasn’t done. Next, Mary set up another colony at a different golf course and that became a hit as well. As a result of her hard work and dedication, Cape Cod’s martin population was recovering faster than anyone could have predicted. Thanks to Mary.

Many people in Massachusetts are familiar with Purple Martins, or at least they think they are. In reality, most of us only know martins from books and magazines. This is because the Bay State’s martin population is limited to a handful of scattered colonies, and that’s about it. Most backyards simply aren’t martin suitable. Occasionally a customer will claim to have nesting martins in his/her yard, but those birds invariably turn out to be Tree Swallows. (Tree Swallows are also cool birds, but folks still get mad at me when I tell them they don’t have martins. It’s not easy being me.) Historically, the insect-eating martins were so popular with farmers that they (the farmers) put up artificial nesting boxes for them (the martins) to nest in. Over time, the birds abandoned their natural sites (old woodpecker holes) and began to use the artificial cavities exclusively. This was great for the farmers, but today the birds are totally dependent on manmade structures. That’s not always a good thing, particularly since public housing has been in short supply in recent years.

Until a few years ago, the Cape’s martin colonies were on private golf courses. Since these courses are for “members only” (you know how golfers are), the Cape’s riffraff (aka, slobby birders) weren’t allowed to visit the colonies. No worries, though. Mary, in conjunction with Mass. Audubon, set up two new colonies on Audubon property. One is at the Long Pasture Sanctuary in Barnstable and the other is at the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, in…Wellfleet. The Wellfleet setup, which was donated by a generous (and good-looking) local bird storeowner, was a bit of a gamble. No martins had nested in Wellfleet in forever and perhaps never. Most experts thought the birds wouldn’t move to the Outer Cape, and for a while they were right. Springs came and went and the setup remained empty. Then two years ago, in 2016, an adventurous pair of martins moved in and raised a family. Yay!! (Take that, experts. Never doubt Wellfleet.)

This was very exciting news, but one pair is a pretty small “colony.” Mary felt that this was just a start. Her Mashpee colonies were overcrowded and more martins should be moving to the Outer Cape in 2017. Well, that didn’t happen. Once again, only a single pair nested in Wellfleet. Why didn’t other martins follow, as Mary had predicted? It seems most of the overflow birds went to the aforementioned Long Pasture Sanctuary. At first, I was a little hurt. I wanted the birds to move into “my” setup. But the more I thought about it, it made sense. Barnstable is simply closer to Mashpee than Wellfleet is. Also, Long Pasture offers much better accommodations. That martin setup sits on the edge of Barnstable Harbor. The nesting birds can look out each morning and see the lighthouse on Sandy Neck and watch the serpents on nearby Rattlesnake Island. On the other hand, the colony in Wellfleet overlooks a dirt parking lot. The Barnstable martins made a more esthetically pleasing choice, and I don’t blame them.

Folks routinely ask me about putting up a martin house in their yard. That’s a nice thought, but it’s not that simple. Martin colonies require a fair amount of work and maintenance (just ask Mary) and the birds need lots of open space that is also adjacent to water. In addition, when people think of a Purple Martin house, they envision a large, gleaming white cottage with lots and lots of apartments. They think such a structure will not only help the birds, but will also serve as a centerpiece for their yard. Sorry, kids, but those giant houses are so 1950s. The martins of 2018 prefer setups consisting of many individual plastic gourds, which are all hung off of one central post. So, instead of having a pleasing showpiece, these new setups look like Clorox bottles hanging on an old TV antenna. (I can hear the neighborhood association complaining now.)

The martins have already returned from South America, Molly. You can readily see lots of them at Long Pasture Sanctuary and a few (so far) at the Audubon sanctuary in Wellfleet. Or you could simply join one of the golf resorts in Mashpee. Keep in mind that both Audubon and the resorts require a membership fee. However, the Audubon fee is much cheaper, and they have no dress code, so even the riffraff are welcomed.