By Erick Blue
Battling Bulletin Student Writer
Purple Martins, the largest birds in the North American swallow family, have been at Glen Mills for over a quarter century and according to Resource Manager Don McNeal, are a “treasure” for the school.
Former Glen Mills staff member Dan Hughes established the Purple Martin colony in 1985 and attracted them by putting up boxes, or “houses,” in the center of campus.
“Before he retired, he asked me to help him manage the purple martin colony,” McNeal, who took over the colony in 1996, said. “We have about 430 nesting cavities in the 32 boxes.”
The acrobatic, quick diving birds help keep the insect population down on campus as they’ll eat just about any insect from mosquitoes to wasps. This eliminates the need to spray chemicals on campus as they essentially act as healthy chemicals that feast on a steady diet of insects.
“We don’t have to spray any chemicals because the purple martins do this naturally,” McNeal said.
Every spring, certified Fish and Wildlife banders come to Glen Mills to help track the birds’ migration patterns. This year, they banded 617 birds, the most ever at the Glen Mills colony.
“We only band birds that are not flying yet,” McNeal explained. “We don’t capture and band adults.”
These aerial insectivores migrate to North America from Venezuela and Brazil. Their departure from North America starts in early August and they will return sometime in late March.
“Some of the same birds that nested here will return year after year,” McNeal said.
“They don’t leave all at once,” McNeal continued. “They leave in drips and drabs so they don’t delete the food source.”
Purple Martins, who are mainly seen in the U.S. from Florida to Maine and throughout the Midwest, fly in groups and often return to the place they were hatched. The first time a young purple martin, or “fledge” tries to fly, they are supported by many of the adult purple martins in the colony.
“That’s something at Glen Mills we can appreciate because it shows support for somebody, or in this case a bird, trying to do something for the first time,” McNeal added.
Glen Mills Schools is proud to be the Purple Martin Capital of the Commonwealth
“We have been designated by the House of Representatives in Harrisburg as being the Purple Martin Capital of Pennsylvania.” in the state of Pennsylvania.
Notable banding years:
1987- 99 birds banded
1988- 98 birds banded
1989- 214 birds banded
1993- 361 birds banded
2010- 543 birds banded
2011- 617 birds banded