In late March 2011, I was staring out my window watching the falling rain and sleet and the thermometer that was falling even faster. I was also keeping watch on my eight purple martins that had arrived 10 days earlier than in years past and wondered how I would ever get them through the bad weather that as predicted for the next 8 days. There would certainly be no flying insects available on which they could feed in that cold, wet weather. I had read the stories on the PMCA forum about how people had trained their martins to accept supplemental feeding of crickets and eggs but I was torn over the whole “nature taking its course” and praying, or helping them.
As I watched their wings droop further, it suddenly became very clear for me; either make the effort and try to feed them or grab a bucket and pick up the dead ones in a few days. There was absolutely no way I was going to be able to do the latter. So I grabbed a handful of plastic picnic spoons, a plate of crickets, gathered up my determination and stood in the middle of my colony with mud up to my ankles and sleet in my face and flipped over 40 crickets to my sad-looking martins. Suddenly, the magic happened and I have never again had to worry about having to pick up buckets full of dead martins in my yard when Mother Nature plays a cruel trick on our migrating martins.
If you’re interested in providing supplemental feeding yourself, here are some pointers how to train your martins, based on my experiences as well as from the other experienced landlords that worked with me and encouraged me along the way.
First, be prepared. A lot of us know about when our martins will arrive and what the average weather is like during those months. My first arrivals come during March, so by February, I know that I should have approximately 5000 crickets in my freezer (I order from ReptileFood.com). An adult martin can eat 40-50 large (1”) crickets a day, so base your cricket supply on that estimate times the number of days of expected bad weather. I usually have a box or two of the cheap, plastic picnic spoons in my pantry as well. When the weather drops below 45-50 degrees, or there is constant rain then there are no flying insects on which the martins can feed. You’ll know they are stressed by observing their physical appearance. Usually they are fluffed out and have very droopy wings.
|Cold weather in late March - notice the martins on the porch with drooping wings|
During the first day or two of bad weather, they may not take the food, but by the third day, it’s time to start flipping. Try to pick the warmest time of the day and the least windy. Position yourself so that you can flip the crickets up high and in front of your martins. Do not flip the crickets directly *at* the birds as that will cause them to fly away from you. I only flipped one cricket at a time as this was their first introduction to crickets and I didn’t want to waste any until I saw the first one take one. I only had to flip 40 to get them started, but I have heard other landlords have had to flip over 100 to get the ball rolling.
I also called out a word (much like training your dog) every time I flipped a cricket. You’ll know why later. After the first martin went after a cricket and returned to her perch, the others slowly started joining her and swirling around in the rain as I flipped over 200 crickets to them. It takes a lot of energy that they can’t afford to waste at these critical times, to fly and catch a cricket. So my next goal was to move them to “tray feeding” so they wouldn’t waste their limited energy. Tray feeding is a different way of feeding for a purple martin as they usually catch their food on the fly.
As they all slowly circled, grabbing flipped crickets, I started flipping the crickets up on my rooftop. Some would finally land and grab the food that fell there. Some of it bounced down onto a tray just below the edge of my roof and they all started landing there and eating the food that bounced off my makeshift ‘tray’. I also added scrambled eggs in with the offerings (crickets can get expensive when you’re trying to feed 20-40 birds). I first had to flip the egg pieces in the air to get them used to accepting egg, then I could add it to the tray where they could eat it later.
During subsequent feedings, I would prepare the eggs and crickets and call the martins out of their housing to the feeder, using my special word that I had used during training. It worked every time.
season we once again started another 8 days of bad weather at the end
of March. The first day the weather snapped down cold, a male martin
flew right up to me, squawking at me. I knew that he was one that
remembered the drill from 2 years ago. I fed over 6000 crickets and 5
dozen eggs over the course of those 8 days to 22 martins. I did end up
losing 4 of them, but I could never be sure if those 4 were “mine” or
were migrants, or they simply died of old age. But I ended up pulling
the rest of my martins through those cold, long, miserable days and I
can’t tell you how happy I am about that.
If you have never tried to feed your birds, I encourage you to try it. My best advice is to be persistent and keep trying. You already know what is the worst that can happen, so you can’t lose anything by trying. My martins bring me great joy every year. I figure providing them with food during desperate times is the least I can do to repay them.
More good information on Supplemental feeding can be found here on the PMCA forum: