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Purple martins return year after year

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By Calen McKinney

Bill Hudgins is a landlord. But he doesn't have to worry about his tenants not paying their rent each month.

They only come around for a few months each year, are purple and eat dragonflies, mosquitoes and other insects.

Hudgins, who has lived in Campbellsville since 1993, has nearly two dozen gourds and other "homes" for purple martin birds.

"They're all full," he said. "Last year, I hatched 185 birds."

He says the birds first came to his home in 1995, and the same birds have been coming back each spring since.

Hudgins said this has been tested when bands were placed on some purple martins in another state. After finding that the same birds came back to the same nesting spot each spring, Hudgins said, it became fact that purple martins actually do go back to the same colonies every year.

"They're a magnificent bird," he said.

He said he thinks the birds just have an instinct about where to go each spring.

"That's their nesting ground," he said.

Hudgins said he has seen dozens of purple martins nest since the 1970s. He has lived in Lexington, North Carolina and Tennessee.

According to a Purple Martin Conservation Association press release, the purple martin is a swallow that is now arriving in Kentucky, with reports of sightings logged almost daily online at www.purplemartin.org.

Purple martins, the largest of the swallows in North America, the press release states, are totally dependent on man-made housing and faithfully return to the same locations each year.

Among the earliest arriving purple martins this year, according to the press release, was in Murray, Ky. on March 1. A martin had reached Shelbyville by March 18 and Lebanon Junction on March 26.

Locally, purple martin arrivals were reported in Campbellsville by Robert Richerson on March 10 and by Roger Sharp on March 13, according to the Web site.

The press release states that purple martins prefer to nest in colonies in gourds, such as Hudgins', hung from large racks and in multi-compartment birdhouses in open yards. They are relatively common throughout Kentucky, with slightly greater numbers found in the western part of the state and fewer in Eastern Kentucky, according to a North American Breeding Bird survey.

Hudgins, who is confined to a wheelchair, is a member of the Purple Martin Conservation Association and says he enjoys closely managing and recording the movements and actions of his colony of purple martins.

Hudgins' gourds hang on pulleys that allow him to easily check on them despite being confined to his wheelchair.

The first bird arrived this year at his home on March 13, the earliest he said he has seen in years. He says he thinks that's due to Kentucky having a milder winter than in past years.

Hudgins said the birds arrive in early spring and immediately begin finding their mates. After mating, he said, the female will lay anywhere from four to seven eggs. It then takes 28 to 30 days before her babies will hatch.

Male purple martins are a deep shade of purple, he said, with female purple martins having a bit lighter shade with white stomachs.

Hudgins says he checks on his birds about once a week. After the birds' eggs have hatched, he said, he takes their nest out of the gourds to ensure that no mites, fleas or other pests damage the nesting.

After doing this, he said, the birds go back in the gourds to make sure he hasn't done anything to their babies.

After the purple martins have roosted, he said, they will congregate together in late July or early August and migrate to Brazil. They won't come back until the next spring.

When not checking on his purple martins, Hudgins enjoys University of Kentucky sports, hunting, fishing and watching for other types of birds, such as cardinals and bluebirds. His favorite birds, however, are his purple martins.

"They're such a neat bird," he said. "They're interesting."

For those wanting to attract purple martins, he said, they should place gourds or other types of birdhouses in an open area that allows easy entrance and exit.

"They won't come in if you have a bunch of trees," he said. "They like to see their predators," he said.

- Staff Writer Calen McKinney can be reached at 465-8111 Ext. 235 or by e-mail at reporter@cknj.com. Comment on this story at www.cknj.com.