At home with the birds

Kristen
Kristen McEwen
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The largest flock of purple martins in Prince Albert has found a perfect place to roost for the summer — in a couple’s backyard.  

The lack of trees in Armand and Laverne Bourassa’s backyard — located on the West Flat, next to the North Saskatchewan River — provides the perfect conditions for more than 200 of the dark coloured birds to nest for the summer.

“They’re sure nice to have around,” Armand said.

Some might think that such a large population of the federally protected birds would become a noise problem, however, the couple disagrees.

“I just love the ‘gurgle gurgle,’” Laverne said, referring to the unique sound the birds make instead of a usual chirp. “There isn’t one neighbour that says they’re noisy except maybe one … I don’t find them noisy.”

Armand and his wife, Laverne, have been bird watching since they moved into their house in 1982. Their yard is home to many kinds of birds including gold finches, tree swallows, barn swallows and wrens. Three years ago, Armand decided to build a birdhouse designed specifically for the few purple martins that were spotted near the house.

According to Laverne, the couple only saw about three pairs of adult birds a year near their home before the first custom birdhouse was built. Last year, the couple had 17 pairs of adults and 81 fledglings after Armand created a second birdhouse.

Since adding a third custom-designed house this year, the population of the deep-blue feathered swallows in the backyard has more than doubled. According to Laverne, there are nine vacancies out of 44 compartments in the birdhouses.

“This year we have 68 adults, we have 144 young which are fledglings and we have 24 eggs … yet to hatch,” she said.

Their secret to attracting so many birds is the extra effort that goes into looking after the Purple Martins.

Armand designs the birdhouses with larger dimensions the birds prefer for nesting. The compartments are also staggered instead of having three or four in a straight line.

The birdwatchers also ensure the houses are not painted with bright colours.

“We changed it to white because they say it’s better to have white houses because the birds, all they see is the black of the hole,” Laverne said.

She also said small colourful birdhouses — while beautiful — are not friendly or practical for the birds.

The birdhouses sit on top of a pole with a pulley system, which allows the birdhouse to be raised and lowered so the couple can perform nest checks every four to five days. The nest checks are necessary for the birds’ survival. Purple martins in North America are not self sufficient when it comes to taking care of their nests.

“We change the nests and take the nests out and put a new nest in,” Armand said. “And then we treat the compartment with (rubbing) alcohol. We also put Sevin powder in there for the bugs.”

The alcohol cleanses the compartments and the regular removal of the nests discourages any other birds from taking up residence. The Sevin powder gets rid of any bugs or insects that may feed on the young.

According to Armand, there is a type of blowfly in North America that lays larvae in the nests, which can harm young fledglings.

“It’s like a little worm and it’s like a bloodsucker,” he said. “And it attaches to the little guy and it sucks the blood away from them and then they die.”

“So we check the nests out to make sure their nest is clean and they (the birds) don’t mind,” he added.

Armand also builds and sells birdhouses at a minimal cost for other people in the city. When he sells the birdhouses, Laverne also provides 12 pages of information on how to care for the birds.

The couple gets their information from chucksmartinpage.com, a website run by a Purple Martin enthusiast in Alabama.

“We’re more than happy to share the information,” she said. Laverne added that if people wanted to start their own flocks, the Bourassas would be more than happy to share their birds.

The couple also provides a tray of eggshells near the birdhouses the females feed to their young in order to build-up strong bones.

“It’s really funny,” Laverne said. “When that tray is empty they kind of come down and pick away as though they’re saying, ‘Where’s our food? We go out and put eggshells down and then they fight over them. Actually, we spend a lot of time watching birds.”

Armand and Laverne spend plenty of time watching and tracking the birds’ migration pattern as well as their activities when they nest for the summer. The couple keeps a notebook that includes details such as when the birds first arrive each year and when the first egg has been laid.

According to Laverne, the first of the flock arrived on April 26 and the first egg was laid on June 2. The rest of the flock gradually arrived after that point.

By mid-August the birds have flown south for the winter.

One unique characteristic about the Purple martins is the fact they are friendly towards humans.

“They get to know you,” Armand said. “We hear about other people, ‘Oh we hate them because they attack you.”

“They never dove at us,” Laverne said.

The couple plans on adding another two houses for the birds next season.

“It gives this old man something to do,” Armand laughed. “It’s a good hobby.”

“It’s an enjoyable hobby,” Laverne added.

“There’s no money in it; it’s just something to pass my time,” Armand said. “Otherwise, what do you do? Just sit and watch TV.”

Geographic location: North Saskatchewan River, North America

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