Home Coming

A couple takes purple martins under their wings // Photograph by CJ Benninger
Purple Martins

The first time Dawn and Fred Bause set up a purple martin birdhouse, about 20 years ago at their Commerce Township home, they weren’t very successful.

“We didn’t know what we were doing,” says Fred, who had hoped to attract the acrobatic songbirds to his yard after learning about them from some friends who had set up their own birdhouse. Recognized as the largest type of swallow in North America, the purplish, iridescent birds arrive in Michigan each spring from their Amazon Basin winter homes in time for breeding, nesting, and raising a family. Graceful in flight, with musical pre-dawn singing, this big swallow is a favorite among bird lovers.

If the houses are successful and the birds’ landlords follow some simple rules, the spring and summer seasons can be a delightful time for watching how these chipper creatures live their daily lives — whether grabbing food, guarding the nest, or fighting off predators like owls and hawks. In the metro Detroit area, almost all purple martins breed only in birdhouses specifically put up for them. The Bauses, who live on Long Lake and run a private touring company called Viva Italy Tours, LLC (they take clients on culinary travel adventures throughout Italy), eventually joined the Purple Martin Conservation Association to learn more about becoming astute landlords. Some of the group’s best suggestions are to keep the birds’ home away from trees, and to consider using a decoy to detract animals such as owls, raccoons, hawks, and snakes. Experts suggest mounting purple martin houses on metal poles 10 to 20 feet above the ground.

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Last year, the Bauses’ purple martin home hosted five families that were hatched and raised there.

The couple’s next attempt was a success and, every year since then, Fred and Dawn have watched the bird families come and go. “We have a 12-compartment house and I open the doors on six of them only. There’s a divider in the middle that I remove, allowing the compartments to be double deep,” Fred shares.

When Dawn and Fred did a little migrating themselves and moved to a smaller home on the lake, they brought the martin home with them, Fred says. As of this issue’s press time, he and Dawn were at their Florida perch, sitting out the COVID-19 pandemic and as eager as the purple martins returning to their spring homes to get back to Michigan and set up the birdhouse. “If we can get there in time, I’ll get the house up,” Fred says. If not, the couple says they’ll set their sights on next year.

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