A pair of Purple Martins peek out from one of the nesting boxes at the Ladysmith Maritime Society.

A pair of Purple Martins peek out from one of the nesting boxes at the Ladysmith Maritime Society.

Ladysmith Purple Martins showcased

Open House planned July 24

It’s no big secret to local residents that the Ladysmith Harbour has gone to the birds.


For more than 20 years, the Ladysmith Maritime Society has played host to an Island-wide recovery program which has slowly helped bring the Western Purple Martin back from the brink of extinction on a wing and a prayer.


On July 24, the bird’s the word as the society  hosts an open house on the Purple Martin. People can learn more about the recovery program, see the birds in action and take part in a banding session.


“It’s a good news story because so many people over the years have gotten together to champion the restoration of this bird and now they can stand back,” said Charlene Lee, project co-ordinator for the BC Purple Martin Recovery Program.


“We really don’t want to lose anymore species. We’re losing enough as it is with logging and climate change.”


The program began after a provincial government survey completed in the mid-1980s revealed there were only five to 10 breeding pairs of the avian in the Strait of Georgia, which is the only location they are found in B.C.


Cue a group of dedicated naturalists and citizens who began to build and install artificial nest boxes designed to keep out the Martins’ competition — the European Starling. The boxes were first placed in the Victoria and Cowichan areas where the bird was sighted, but spread across the Island and Lower Mainland in the years following.


Last year, there were a grand total of around 600 breeding pairs in 51 active colonies in B.C.


There are currently 45 active nests at the Ladysmith marina, and there are still first-year birds that are only just starting to nest and lay eggs, Lee said. Ladysmith Harbour has about 80 nest boxes and has seen as many as up to 70 nests in one season.


“It’s become one of the most successful colonies in the province,” said local avian author and enthusiast Bruce Whittington.


“Ladysmith’s an ideal place, and they’ve shown us that they really like to nest over or beside the water.”


“They’re a neat bird… they make a pretty sound when you hear them, and most people seem be quite happy to have them around.”


The Western Purple Martin is the largest swallow in North America and should not be confused with the Eastern Purple Martin, which lives east of the Rockies.


“They’re different genetically, they’ve been separated from the Eastern Purple Martin for over 200,000 years, but if you had them in your hand, you might not be able to tell the difference,” Lee said.


The most distinctive is the adult male, who has a dark blue/black which appears purple in some lights. The female has more brown wings and back with a little bit of blue/black along her back and the top of her head, Lee said.


They feed on large bugs such as moths, beetles and dragonflies. The average Purple Martin lives three to five years, however, thanks to the process of leg banding, researchers are able to track interesting information on the birds.


For example, birds that are born in the Ladysmith Harbour have shown up as adults as far away as Campbell River. The oldest Purple Martins on record lived to 11.


They also migrate 10,000 km each way to South America every year for the winter.


Historically, Purple Martins nested in woodpecker holes in trees near fresh water.


Whittington said the rebound of the Purple Martin is a prime example of people responding to conservation initiatives in a positive way.


“Everything we humans do as a species has an impact on every other species and most of the time, it means they get the short end of the stick.”


He said now that the population numbers are back at a healthy level, he would like to see conservationists work on reducing the birds’ dependence on the artificial boxes and restore them back to a more natural habitat.


The Purple Martin Open House takes place at the Ladysmith Maritime Society on July 24 from 1-4 p.m., with the banding session taking place between 2 and 3 p.m. Light refreshments will be available, including a specialty Purple Martin (blueberry) milkshake.