The social Purple Martins

We have the “Red” house and the “Gourd Tower” erected on the south fence of my office patio yard. The Gourd Tower is new this year. Last year was our first attempt at attracting Purple Martins when we put up the Red House. It was a “if you build it they will come,” type experience. A couple days after we erected the Red House in 2019, Purple Martins began to settle into it.

This year, the flock seems larger. While most of the birds are building nests in the Red House, some are attracted to the Gourds, and I have seen a couple of birds entering the gourds.

Sing Me A Song

The Song Sparrow, a native species appears to be a plain, little brown bird. But, they are more than their boring appearance. Yesterday, a bird landed on the fence near the roses in my little garden. It was very nondescript. But, then it tilted its tiny head backwards and produced this lovely, melodic song. I tried to get a picture, but it flew to the ground, nabbed a seed, and flitted off. Today, I was SUPER fortunate to catch it, with what I suspect is its mate. They were on the fence by the Bluebird house, so I had my camera angled right.

I suspect these birds are a mated pair, as they were spending a lot of time flitting around together. The bluebirds were feeding their chick (which are inside the birch-look nest box in the photo above), but didn’t seem terribly upset that the sparrows were in their turf. If there were House Sparrows, we would have seen some aggressive “chasing off” behavior, as House Sparrows (which are not native) compete with the Bluebirds, and can even kill their chicks.The Bluebirds would never have tolerated them so close to their nest, especially since there are chicks inside.

Nest Building Tree Swallows

At the end of April, a Tree Swallow pair arrived, began building a nest in the office yard center nest box, then abandoned it due to House Sparrow issues. I am fairly certain that same pair is the one that set up residence in the front yard, north box.  At the time, I wasn’t seeing many other Tree Swallows in the area.

On April 27th I filmed that pair interacting with at least two other Tree Swallows that seemed to me, no data to support this, to be kin (perhaps last year’s fledglings.)  You can see those images here:

On May 1st, I noticed a number of Tree Swallows in the backyard area engaged in some serious aerial acrobatics paired with chirps and squawks, swoops, dives and incredible banking on the edge of the fairly high winds we were experiencing.  To my human eyes, it appeared to be a festival on wing, as if the birds hadn’t seen each other for months and seemed happy to meet up, again.  Yeah, OK.  That might be a bit theatrical. Perhaps it’s just my hominid brain reaching for interpretation, but I have made a living observing and interacting with animals, so I’m going to go with that.

The next day, May 2, I was privy to nest building activities of a Tree Swallow that had decided to take ownership of one of the gourds in the Purple Martin Gourd Tower that we erected earlier this year nearby the Red House – a social cavity house that was used by Purple Martins last year, and has been occupied by them this year, as well. The Purple Martins that are busy working on nests in the Red House often perch on the top of the Gourd Tower, but I haven’t yet noticed any of them choosing to build a nest in any of the Gourds, until very recently.

Tree Swallow carrying nesting material to a gourd.

Although all these photos seem to be the same, they are individual events that transpired nearly every couple of minutes. I’m posting them all, not because they are uber-fine quality images. They aren’t. But, simply to give a glimpse of all the work this bird put into the nest in such a short period of time. I was able to snap one photo as the bird approached. Then, it went to the opposite side of my view. In less than a minute, it flew off. I was able to catch photos of the exit, as well, but I’m not posting them all here because, let’s face it, how many low quality images of a nice bird can you look at before you get bored and don’t go all the way to the end to see the videos!

The Tree Swallow stayed true to his (her?) mission all afternoon. I, personally, observed twenty trips that little bird took – carrying a beak full of grass clipping and other vegetal matter up to the tower. He had selected a gourd that faces away from the yard, and my position on my patio, so I didn’t see him actually enter the gourd, but I saw him carry the material to it and fly away with an empty mouth. All the while, Purple Martins perched on the tower, coming and going, preening, chortling and cajoling  with their companions.  Neither species seemed to be concerned about the other, albeit they were within inches of each other some of the time. 

I have read that, because they are territorial about their nests, Tree Swallows that occupy a Purple Martin house will chase the Martins away and therefore, it is prudent to discourage their pursuit to house there.  Clearly, that sort of behavior wasn’t transpiring on the day that the Tree Swallow decided to move into the gourd. Below are some photos of the Purple Martins, including a few that include the Tree Swallow flying into their Gourd Tower.

The Tree Swallow (left) approaches the tower on which three Purple Martins are roosting. There are two females and a male PM.
A male Purple Martin sits atop the tower as a Tree Swallow arrives with a mouthful of nesting material. The Tree Swallow was building the nest in the gourd facing directly away from the camera angle.
The barely leafed out trees in the background make it difficult to find the Tree Swallow. It is zooming in from the lower, left. Three Purple Martins seem unaffected by the Tree Swallow’s activities.
A female Purple Martin arrives to join a friend, another female. There isn’t a Tree Swallow in this frame.
Purple Martins.
A male Purple Martin lights onto the tower.

Robert brought a video camera and captured a bit of the action. I have posted a couple of short videos of that, below.

This isn’t a “Nature Film” quality video. Let’s face it this is a very little bird that changes direction in flight better than most birds. But, if you can refrain from being overwhelmed by the jittery image, you may enjoy it!

Because I Said So

On occasion – actually fairly often – I receive an email inquire from someone who is having a dog behavior issue.

Today, I received this question, “We recently learned that Maggie resource guards her food around other dogs. We plan to get a new puppy.  We want to train Maggie to not snarl and snap. What can we do for this?”

Whether a dog is barking out the window, jumping up on people, climbing on off-limits furniture, or any other unwanted behavior (including resource guarding of food, toys or even people), there’s one thing that a dog needs to understand.  It is the concept of “don’t do that” and even more importantly is the second half of that sentence, “…because I said so!” 

If you watch a socially balanced group of dogs interacting, you will find that they don’t present a vast array of unique “don’t do that!” interventions for various offenses.  It’s pretty clear and simple.  If the higher ranking dogs in the pack do not accept or tolerate a pup’s behavior, there’s a warning and then a correction if the warning is not heeded.  Their actions are the same whether the puppy is about to steal a toy, climb on the older dog’s back or even bark at the cat!  It all distills down to a simple message:  “Don’t do that….or else!”  

The warning (“don’t do that!”) is provided with visual and auditory cues like a curled lip or low, almost inaudible growl.  Warnings are not paired with frantic, angry or disappointed energy.  They are just information.  That’s tough for many humans to emulate because we tend to want to apply shame, disgust or anger when we correct others.

If the wayward dog doesn’t change her behavior, then the higher ranking dog follows up with a correction.  Like the warning, the correction is not paired with frantic, angry or disappointed energy.  It’s just delivered quickly and effectively without reckless emotions.  Most often, a correction is physical; a quick, in-and-our jab or snap at the neck or face area.  The intention is to provide an experience which is unpleasant enough to be effective and long lasting while not being so over-the-top that the recipient is psychologically scarred or physically damaged.

In order for the pup to comprehend the “or else” part of the communication, the warning must be followed by the correction.  Warnings alone are likely to become irrelevant, background gibberish. Without the correction, education doesn’t happen.  The dog continues the unacceptable behavior.  The human becomes irritated and the dog learns to ignore his owner.

If the correction is effective, the pup learns to heed the warning to avoid the consequence.  Then, when the pup begins to act out, the dog’s owner can present the warning and the pup ceases the unacceptable behavior on that verbal communication, alone. The need to deliver a correction only occurs when the warning is not respected. 

If the initial attempt at correcting the pup fails and falls below the threshold necessary to be perceived as a true punishment, then the pup may continue to offend. 

Dogs are all different.  A soft natured dog may consider a clap of the hands not only as an interruption, but as a correction.  A tougher dog, especially one that has little reverence for his owner’s position of authority, may need a fairly stiff physical correction.  The level of correction required to shut down a dog’s behavior is highly related to how much motivation the dog has to continue the behavior.  It is important to evaluate these variables and makes changes as necessary.  The level of a correction needs to trump the motivational units for a specific offense.  A calm, relaxed and still proactive dog trainer will be highly successful.

The most important elements of the, “don’t do that, because I said so!” narrative are the last four words.   A dog that has little or no respect for his owner doesn’t honor the idea of “because I said so!”  That is because the dog doesn’t actually care about the person.   A dog that believes he is the higher ranking one in a relationship, is not motivated to adhere to his owner’s standards. Worse, he expects his owner to obey his demands.

That is why, when a client calls with a very specific behavioral issues, I often find myself saying, “we can’t train a dog with an ala carte strategy.”   We can’t simply address the idea that a dog is growling at another dog near the food bowl, if the same dog won’t obey his owner in other areas of their life together.  And yet, if the dog does obey her owner (doesn’t bark out the windows, refrains from jumping up on people, willingly gets off the furniture when instructed) she can be corrected for growling around a food bowl and it will stop the unwanted behavior.  She just hasn’t been taught it’s unacceptable – but, she is teachable and willing to comply to the new rule. 

If your dog is already compliant in other areas of your relationship, then the answer to the question, “how do we address the fact that Maggie grows at other dogs around her food bowl,” is simple.  Employ the strategy that you have used to correct Maggie when she was, say, jumping up on you when she begins to growl at her food bowl.

On the contrary, if your dog has never learned how to listen for warnings and cease an unwanted behavior to avoid getting the ultimate correction, it hasn’t assimilated the most basic relationship rules of cohabitating with humans.  It seems unreasonable to initiate the warning = correction lesson at the food bowl.  It is more fair to begin the lesson with something far less motivating than food, like going across the threshold of a specific room, or barking at leaves blowing outside the window.  Food is a huge motivator.   After all, it’s impossible to survive without it.   To start training a dog to respect you in that situation is not prudent.

A dog that has been taught to stop doing a behavior when he hears his owner’s warning is prepped to learn that the rules apply around food, too.  If a dog understands “stop doing that,” the same process can be used if she begins to show any signs of guarding her food bowl.  Make certain that she will move off the bowl when another dog approaches, because you said so.  Approach the problem like any other that you have conquered when you taught Maggie that she isn’t allowed in the room with the new, white carpet, or she should not jump up on the counters. 

It isn’t uncommon for a dog owner to report to me that she has been successful teaching her dog that it cannot eat the food under the baby’s chair, or that the puppy cannot go upstairs, or she can tell the dog it’s not allowed on the bed, but she is struggling with communicating some other standard or boundary to the dog.  But, from the dog’s perspective, it’s all the same. What is different is whether the person believes she can control the dog in that situation, and whether she is serious about fixing it.

We humans might categorize various behavioral issues quite differently, yet to a dog, it’s all about what is tolerated and what isn’t.  However, that thought will never cross the mind of a dog that doesn’t recognize his owner’s rank over him.  If a dog is running the house in his head, he’s running the house physically, too.  If he understands who the boss is, then it’s just a matter of following the steps of canine socialization that I write about in 10 Most Common Mistakes That Dog Owners Make – And How To Resolve Them:

  1. Define your standards.
  2. Pay Attention.
  3. Give a warning when the dog begins to break the standard.
  4. Correct if the dog doesn’t heed the warning.
  5. Repeat.

This strategy works great with humans, and in fact it is the basis of human social order.

  1. Define standards = write laws (speed limit will be 55 MPH)
  2. Pay attention = law enforcement activities (Police officer observing motorist traffic activity)
  3. Give a warning = Posting the speed limit on signs.
  4. Correct if the warning isn’t heeded = write a ticket.

It’s simple stuff, really, that we practice all the time.  We just need to add our dog’s behavior into that which for we set and enforce standards.

Hope Floats

Each spring, well before the temperature is averaging 65 degrees during the day, something I refer to as “hope” happens in my patio pond.  At first, I only catch a glimpse of it when the sunlight hits the water just right.  Then, day by day it becomes more obvious.  The water lily plant at the bottom of the pond sends up its first leaf.  It takes many days, but I see progress every day.

For me it represents the most basic meaning of hope.  Imagine that this plant may be using its last reserves of energy towards one purpose; to produce a little leaf.  Up, up and away the tiny, curled pad advances.  Each inch of stem that is added consumes more fuel.  Only if that leaf eventually breaks the water’s surface can the plant begin to replenish its stores, produce more leaves and eventually bloom.

I ponder.  What if, due to a natural disaster like an infrequent flood, the water’s surface was not three feet up from the soil where the roots are secured, but six or even twenty feet?  Would that lily have the capacity to maintain the leaf’s momentum upwards to the light?  One can only hope. This small miracle that happens each spring on my back patio truly illuminates the concept that Hope Floats.

I’m sure it’s not actually their intention, but the goldfish in my patio pond appear to welcome the new leaf when it finally reaches the water’s surface.
A mere six days after the first leaf made it to the light, five additional leaves have made it to the surface.

Close Your Eyes

It’s hard enough to catch a hummingbird on film. They seem to exist in their own time and space continuum. But, I was able to catch a female Ruby Throated hummingbird, with her eyes shut! Super special.

Little Jewels of Joy

The Hummingbirds returned on May first. That was nice. It was my birthday! Great gift. We are dedicated to supporting the hummers, because, well, we just really enjoy them. I have a small feeder on the window of my office door which I can see over my monitor. We three, distinct areas – my office patio, the kitchen patio and the front patio – which are separated from sight of each other. Male hummingbirds can be very territorial. They will actually sit on a nearby branch or fence and wait for another bird to consider eating from the feeder. Then, he’ll swoop in and chase the poor bird away. With our three locations, one dominant bird cannot monitor all the areas, which allows a peaceful meal at the other feeders that he isn’t guarding.

It’s been cloudy or rainy or cold most days since they arrived, but I was able to get some good shots of our favs today at one of our many feeders we have to support the hummers.

This is a female Ruby Throated Hummingbird. I love when I’m able to capture the glint in their eyes.
Male Ruby Throated Hummingbird at one of our many nectar stations.
Male Ruby Throated Hummingbird in flight.
Two females arrive at the feeder, together. Too bad the sun wasn’t out from behind the cloud.
There are two females in this shot, too, but one is hiding on the far side of the feeder.
Female Ruby Throated Hummingbird, in flight
Male, in flight.



[ ri-frak-shuh n ]


Physics. the change of direction of a ray of light, sound, heat, or the like, in passing obliquely from one medium into another in which its wave velocity is different.

I captured a male, Ruby-throated Hummingbird at a feeder, but not without the effect of refraction. You can see the bird directly at the lower left side of the feeder. You can see the refracted image of him in the hour glass shaped glass vessel which contains the clear nectar.

Pretty cool!

Kids Helping Their Parents?

The sun finally peered out after many days of gloom and rain, so I set out to take a few shots of the front yard nest box.  There was a cold wind from the north and I hoped I would be able to endure long enough to get a few good photos.  We originally put the box up to attract a second pair of Bluebirds, since their territory is quite large, and our house creates an added visual barrier between the backyard, where the primary pair is nesting, and the front area.  However, a pair of Tree Swallows has moved in and, as of yesterday (4/25/20) Robert saw eggs in the nest.  I like Tree Swallows, they are native cavity nesters, so I’m cool with them using the box, of course.

Male and female Tree Swallow sit atop the nest box where they have built a nest containing 4 eggs.
One or both birds take the position atop the box quite frequently.
Often, the female will enter the nest while her mate remains on top.
It’s hard not feeling as if they are very fond of each other.
On occasion I am lucky and the sun will reach the bird in her hole and provide a bit more detail of their incredible iridescent feathers.

The pair is very active and I see one or both of them nearly every time I look out the window, so I expected to catch them.  But, I wasn’t prepared for what I was able to film.  It was exciting and very interesting to have witnessed.  I believe that I watched the parents engage and train their young from last year to help raise this future brood.  While there are only eggs, there was no need to feed the mother or chicks.  That’s why I consider it a “training exercise.”  I think I was observing practice runs.

The pair sitting atop the box.

I have watched Bluebirds and Tree Swallows have aerial battles over nest sites.  I have watched both Tree Swallows and Bluebirds run off House Sparrows, as well.  House Sparrows are not a native species, and we do not encourage them in any way (we toss their nests out of the boxes repeatedly as a form of “birth control.”)  So, I am familiar with battles over turf.   It usually happens when an outsider enters the space of the pair (or individual) that has assumed “ownership” of the nest box. And, while “outsiders” arrived, I did not see any signs of aggression. I did hear a significant amount of vocalizations from all four birds. The four birds spent significant time in the air, swooping about with each other before the parent pair landed on the box.

A third Tree Swallow (that I suspect may be a juvenile from last year’s brood) flies in from the upper left. The main pair was not alarmed, and had been flying in a small flock of the four birds just minutes earlier.
The primary pair did not seem alarmed as this third bird flies near their box.

The Tree Swallows were not attempting to ward off the two others that were landing and flying close to the nest box.  Rather, they seemed to be encouraging them. 

Although the gaping open mouth of the bird in flight suggests an assault, it’s only a perception. The main pair was not alarmed by the birds presence.
I felt quite fortunate to have not only witnessed the aerial acrobatics of this small group of swallows, but more so to get it on film.
While it appears that the bird on the upper left is chasing the other, I didn’t perceive it that way when I was watching “in person.” The center bird was simply taking flight.
The Tree Swallows are quite vocal, especially when they are in flight with each other – which is brilliant to watch.

At one point, the female entered the nest and stuck her head out while the two youngsters (gonna just assume that is who they were) appeared to fly by and slow sufficiently to “feed” the mother bird.  I may be completely wrong, but that is how it appeared to me.

During this “practice session” as I appeared to me, the male of the pair often remained on the top of the box.
FINALLY! I was able to capture what I had been seeing – the secondary birds seemed to suspend long enough to “feed” the mother in the hole.
This looks like a “chase off” behavior, but the four birds never appeared aggressive to each other, but rather kin. The open mouth is probably just vocalization.
It’s clear in this photo that the primary birds on the box were not concerned with the other birds’ presence.

I’m happy that the sun came out and I had the time and thought to film the front yard Tree Swallow pair. I feel that I was privy to a unique situation…or if it isn’t all that unique, at least it was special to me.