Protecting the Purple Martins

  • Posted: Wednesday, May 29, 2013, 12:00 am

Pantex biologist, Canadian scientist to study birds this weekend

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Pantex wildlife biologist Jim Ray will be teaming up with York University researcher Dr. Kevin Fraser from Toronto this weekend to help study the movements and behaviors of Purple Martins.

Ray, Fraser and several volunteers will be capturing the Martins, which are the largest member of the swallow family in North America, and affixing small geolocator tracking devices to help expand scientific knowledge about the birds. The geolocators were provided by the Department of Energy and Pantex in connection with a Presidential directive to help study and preserve migratory birds.

“Purple Martins are declining in some areas of the United States, and it is critical we continue to learn about their year-round needs and protect them,” said Ray, who studies a variety of wildlife species in his work at Pantex.

Ray said Purple Martins have been popular among bird watchers since early settlers found Native Americans providing the birds with living quarters in hollowed-out gourds. Providing birdhouses has been a popular pastime for birders ever since.

“I’ve been fascinated by Purple Martins since I was exposed to them when I went to graduate school in South Dakota,” Ray said. “Although I have been studying and promoting them for 25 years, it took me 16 years to attract my first nesting pair.”

Martin aficionados like Ray place specially constructed bird houses in their yards. Ray, who along with Fraser holds a permit to capture the birds, has banded more than 10,000 Purple Martins. Since 2007, geolocators – which weigh 1.5 grams and estimate the location of the birds by recording sunrise and sunset times – have expanded the scientific knowledge of the birds’ movements. Researchers discovered the small birds spend up to a month and a half flying south to Brazil in the fall, but return north to their U.S. breeding colonies in only two weeks during spring.

The Purple Martin Conservation Association ( supports geolocator efforts like the one this weekend.

Greg Cunningham
Public Affairs
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