Purple Martins: A Field Trip

by Sue Ann Kendall

Thanks to some impressive detective work, a group of folks from the El Camino Real Master Naturalist group, along with some Master Gardeners and friends, got to visit what may be the largest privately-owned collection of purple martin houses in the US.

Who, What, Where?

For years, people had been telling our resident purple martin expert, Donna Lewis, that there was “a guy in Milam County” with a whole lot of purple martin houses. She never could find out where the “guy” was, until the intrepid Cathy Johnson got wind of where he might be. So, they called him up and visited the place recently. It’s probably the highlight of Donna’s birding career.

Donna and Cathy just had to show all these purple martin houses and the mega-house to the rest of us.

Well, of course, they knew we’d all want to visit, too, so they arranged for us to visit the beautiful ranch property of Mike McCormick, a ways outside of Buckholts in Milam County.

Field Trip!

We headed out this morning and were treated to a drive through some of the most beautiful countryside in this area. Cathy and I were in the lead car, and were really relieved to find the place, since Apple Maps had no idea where it was.

Beautiful property in Milam County.

Between 10 and 15 people gathered to hear Mike tell us how he sets up his houses to avoid predators (especially snakes), and the history of his bird house collection, which he makes himself out of aluminum sheeting and steel where needed.

Bird netting is an inexpensive and effective way to keep those darned chicken snakes from climbing the poles.

We learned many cool facts, including that the martins can be seen on radar when they head out to migrate. You can tell the birds from bats, because the birds form a circle. Plus, it’s a good thing there are a couple of nice tanks on the property, because purple martins need open water to drink from.

Birds hanging around their houses, and a view of the property.

Also, Mike’s biggest issues are dealing with starlings and English sparrows taking over the nests. It turns out neither of these are protected species, so he takes care of them by eliminating them.

Mike tells the group about the ways he uses the bird netting.

Mike had a large and beautiful colony in the 2000s, but the drought we had in 2011 caused him to lose his entire colony, along with his llamas. That had to be very hard on him. It has taken all this time to build the colony back up to where most of the houses have tenants. We were lucky to see a good number of birds flying around, because most of them have already departed for Brazil, where they’ll hang out until late January, when they come back here to breed.

This shelter was so cool and pleasant. What a great picnic area!

Demo Time

Lowering a house for inspection.

After he talked for a while, Mike showed us up close how his amazingly beautiful houses work. They look so easy to clean and are aesthetically just lovely. You easily got the impression he’s a clever guy, mechanically, when he showed us his rolling ladder for getting to the houses after they are lowered down.

Linda Jo Conn lifts up the portable ladder, while Patrick Still ponders its cleverness.

He says he’s going to work on an easier lowering mechanism, so folks who aren’t really strong can more easily do it. That’s good, because it means he’s going to make some more houses over the winter!

After the demo, Mike and his sister kindly provided us with some delicious snacks, which we enjoyed in their cool and comfortable covered shed. We were blown away by their hospitality.

Mike and his sister bring out the nice snacks.

Such a Lovely Property

Those of us who own rural property were really impressed about how well Mike and his sister maintained the place. Everywhere we looked there was something beautiful or clever, like this dog peeing on a purple martin house pole.

His tail is a horseshoe.

We got to look at his beautiful collection of fancy pigeons, too, as well as a whole bunch of dogs that look exactly alike (because they are related). It was really a pleasure to visit and learn this weekend.

My favorite purple martin house and a bunch of dogs that look alike.

We hope to come back next year, when we have all our new students, for more!

Very happy birds. Their housing was immaculate and beautiful.
This dead tree is a favorite perch of the martins. That’s why we don’t cut down dead trees in our fields if at all possible!

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