About ten days ago, Purple Martins arrived back to our location, where they found the “Red house” that we put up four years ago. They also found the gourd tower that we put put up the following year, and the horizontal bar of several additional gourds we added last year. To their perceived joy, Robert had put up a new “White house” this Spring, just in time for their arrival and we saw many birds checking it out. There’s plenty of space for all incoming summer residents in our growing Purple Martin colony. But, you may not have thought that if you observed what I saw yesterday.
I must apologize for the poor quality photos that provide the visual images of my account of the brawl that I witnessed. But, we were enduring rain showers and dark, overcast skies. We were also under a National Weather alert for high wind speeds. Those gourds were swinging and the birds where working their tail feathers off to navigate through the 20+ mph gusts. Still, even though I’m not happy with the condition of the pictures, they are worth sharing, I think.
When I arrived in my office (which has doors out to a patio from which I can see the Purple Martin residences), I noticed a lot of chortling. PMs are very vocal with each other, and it’s an interesting and cheerful sound which I truly enjoy. Gazing out the window, I determined the source of the commotion. There were many Purple Martins flying around the row of houses and gourds that stand about 60 feet from our house. The scene brought forth a memory of the music from the Cyclone scene when the witch is cycling through the tornado in the classic movie The Wizard of Oz. The extreme winds were preventing the birds from forward movement, and in fact sometimes with a slight tip of the wing, the birds would sail backwards several feet from their original position.
It didn’t take long for my attention to be drawn to a very curious situation. One bird seemed to be stuck in the hole of the upper most gourd of the gourd tower. Other birds were swarming him, as if trying to pluck him out of the entry hole. But, that bird was not budging. I hollered to Robert and asked him to go out and take a closer look.
The bird was still unable to free himself as Robert approached. I got the idea that, perhaps, his toenail got stuck somehow – perhaps in the small, open spaces associated with the crescent shaped plastic piece that is intended to be removed for a round hole, but left intact as a Starling deterrent. Just as Robert was coming back to discuss the situation, the bird was able to pull away.
It was only once I knew that the “imprisoned” bird was free, that I considered filming the goings-on with the highly active PMs. They were still acting a bit frazzled; I suppose due to their buddy’s plight. As I mentioned, it was very overcast and on the verge of rain. I wasn’t using a tripod. And, I was quite a distance from the gourd tower. Those conditions all told me that the images I caught would probably be quite substandard. But, I snapped away as I watched the birds fighting the wind and seemingly each other.
Based on my review of the still shots (which I will present here in chronological order), my best guess is that I observed a territorial dispute. A quick bit of research tells me that, while Purple Martins are colony nesters which like to live, breed, roost, hunt and migrate together, in the very early stages of nest box / unit selection, territorial disputes can occur.
This is the gourd where a bird seemed caught in the opening. Here, a couple minutes after it was free, you can see a female inside the gourd and a male, which I assume to be her mate, is hanging on the opening. I wonder if the female was trapped inside when the other bird got caught. that could have been a reason for so much vocalizations and added activity.
The male flies off. Between shots, I believe the female left the gourd, too.
A female returns and attempts to enter the gourd, despite the wind.
The female grabs onto the entry hole, and there’s a male right behind her.
The male appears to make contact with the female.
The female looses her grip and the wind blows her backwards.
While the male maintains his trajectory towards the gourd, the female presses into the wind and attempts to get back to the hole.
The next five images show the female battling the wind as she tries to catch up to the male as he lands on the gourd opening.
The female makes contact with the male bird.
The male turns, and opens his beak towards the female as she, seemingly, tries to dislodge him from the gourd.
Then next several images show the skirmish between the two..
The male eventually releases his grip.
The male flies off as we see another male flying into the area. Could it be the female’s mate coming to assist?
As the female enters the gourd, the two males fight the wind.
The second male catches up to the first male.
This is such a powerful image of, what appears to be a mated pair, in solidarity during a territorial dispute regarding nest site occupation. But, images can be deceiving. Perhaps the bird on the right gazes back towards his mate and her attacker?
The male that appeared to be “side by side” with the female, is blown back by the wind and presses forward again towards her.
The male goes on the attack, again.
The female turns to defend herself.
The male makes contact.
The next few images present the rest of this battle.
The male appears to take ownership of the nest while the female topples from her grasp.
As the fallen female rights herself, there’s a flurry of activity around the gourd, including birds that are outside the cropped zones of these photos.
I assume it is the original female which was tossed off the gourd that flies back into the scene.
This time, she is the aggressor as she makes contact with the male that had ripped her off the gourd.
She looks to mean business.
Here are the next few snapshots which include an image where both birds seem to be momentarily distracted by a female flying by. It makes me wonder if that bird is paired with the attacking male.
The next image is one which made me sick when I realized the quality of the images was so poor compared to the content of this photo. It would have been such a great shot if the conditions had been better.
Even though it’s quite grainy, I’m presenting a tighter crop of the picture here, so that you can see that the female bird has grabbed the male bird by the beak. The female that is flying by in the background has her beak open, which suggests she is vocalizing. You have to wonder what she is communicating.
Here are the next images in this sequence. I must have missed when the male flew off. It’s not possible for my camera to take indefinite shots in sequence before I need to reset as the memory cache can’t handle more than about 15 shots in a row.
The female entered the hole. It makes me wonder if the male that settled on the bar above her is her mate.
Here’s the female entering the box.
She took the position I see females assume for most of incubation time, which is 15-18 days once the last egg is laid and the hen begins to set. I don’t think they have eggs yet, however.
Not long after she settled in the gourd, the male that I assume to be her mate showed up. One has to wonder how that conversation went down.
The male stayed with his mate for a short while then flew off.
But that’s not the end of the story. The files of my images move to other activity that I was observing, like a couple that was on the red house, and birds in some of the other gourds.
I turned my lens back to the top gourd to catch the following activity.
The remaining few minutes of images were of the female held up in her gourd without additional altercations with other birds. Shortly there after it began to rain, and it didn’t stop until the early hours of the morning. It continues to rain today (we are under a flood watch until April 6th!) It’s been quiet in the colony today so, I’m assuming the birds are working out their issues. There are plenty of nest units available, but it’s interesting to note that the one I filmed is indeed the highest one of all the options. I suppose I could call this blog the Penthouse Phenomenon.