(Photo courtesy Purple Martin Conservation Association)

Important Insect-Eating Birds On The Decline

Without human help an important insect-eating bird may decline even further in Essex County.

Purple Martins depend on people to survive and nest most often in human-made housing.

John Balga with the Ontario Purple Martin Association says they set up a house at Colchester Harbour in May.

“We attracted four pair. Approximately 20 young were fledged from that site,” says Balga. “We banded 15 of the young that were there and now we can track them as they travel throughout North America down to their wintering grounds in Brazil.”

Since 2001 the local group has been keeping their eye on Purple Martins. About 60 members — or “landlords” — exist across Essex County to help the bird population soar.

Despite their best efforts, Purple Martins are declining. It’s unclear exactly why, but some suspect the climate is playing a role.

“Because of the polar vortex that came into the Great Lakes area, it hung around here for about a week-and-a-half and devastated some of the colonies that were here,” says Balga. “There were numerous reports of people losing birds, but those were the early birds that returned from the spring migration.”

More Martin houses are needed in the region. Bird enthusiasts and nature lovers can visit the Ontario Purple Martin Association’s website to find out how they can help.

“Unless we do that we’re going to find a large decline in the species,” says Balga.

If that happens, us humans will surely feel the effects.

“If we don’t increase the number of flying insectivores we’re going to have an increase in the insect populations in the area,” Balga says, adding they eat flies, butterflies, moths, beetles, wasps and sometimes mosquitoes.

Around 20,000 Purple Martins exist in Ontario today, a “far cry” from the ’60s and ’70s.

In just a few weeks these birds will head south to Brazil for the winter. Some of them actually make it back from the more than 2,000-kilometer trek, but Balga isn’t concerned about them carrying the Zika virus.

“If they do eat insects that may have that virus, I think their body systems actually metabolize the virus within them, if they do have it,” says Balga. “It’s like any other virus that an animal will carry.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. says there haven’t been any reports of Zika affecting pets or birds.

Some of the birds have been banded and group members hope to identify them when they return next April.