I am still in a state of shock, and my arm is pretty sore, but what I saw today was spectacular, and I cannot quite settle down enough to put it into words. But I will try. Andy Troyer called yesterday and said that some of his martins seemed near to death after 3-4 days of cold, wintry weather. (He has a colony of over 100 pair in Conneautville, PA, about 60 miles north of Butler, PA.) In the past, he has witnessed early returning martins perish due to a lack of flying insects during spring cold snaps, and the weather forecast did not look good for the next few days (more cold weather). Unfortunately, about 15 of his martins had already returned, over a week early, and were now at great risk of starvation.
When I arrived at Andyís home around 2:00 PM with a fishtank of 1000 crickets and a sligshot, it was overcast and about 45 degrees F. I didn't know weather the martins would be sitting around, communal cavity roosting, or even dead. As Andy's son Adam and I cranked down house after house, we found that there were no martins present at all! It was cold but there was no wind and Adam speculated that they might be trying to scrounge up a few insects at the State Gamelands lake about 4 miles away. We jumped in the car and drove over. Sure enough, many swallows, including martins, were foraging just inches above the water; there were a few gnats out but the martins didnít seem to be getting much to eat. Several perched in a dead snag had drooped wings. Anyways, they were foraging very close-by, and we regretted not having brought the crickets to try flinging at them, so we decided to drive back to the farm and get them.
Upon arriving back at Andyís colony site, we noticed a few martins arriving at the housing, so we decided to toss a few crickets at them. Two martins were sitting on a T-14 perch, and when we flung the first crickets near them, their heads turned intently. They had definitely seen it and seemed interested! The next few crickets we flung caused one of the martins to take off after it! It just barely missed it! But we neednít have worried. As we flung cricket after cricket, more martins started chasing them down. They soon caught on and were becoming experts at picking them off in mid-air! Soon, a dozen martins were buzzing overhead, expertly swooping and banking, twisting and turning, as they snapped up the crickets all around us!
The feeding frenzy was on! It was unbelievable! Several times, a martin would swoop in at the last minute and expertly snag the cricket a split-second before it hit the ground! There were over two dozen martins present within 30 minutes, 40 at the end of an hour. They were zooming all around us, definitely hungry and eager to accept our offering. After an hour of the three of us flinging over 300 crickets each (900 total), the martins were definitely getting full. They had eaten about 20-25 fat crickets each within one hour, and I was eager to get back to the office to share the news and make a post. It was a spectacular and moving experience! I am convinced that nobodyís martins ever have to die of starvation! Crickets can be ordered from Fluker Farms at 1-800-735-8537. 1000 six week old crickets (the biggest you can get) costs $13.50. You can have them delivered overnight by Airborne Express (if you order by noon on weekdays) for $10.00. The weather is expected to be in the 30ís tomorrow around here (with snow), and Iím sure that some martins that would otherwise have perished will now survive after this cricket feast! I'm sure this technique can also be used when martins have young in the nest during bad weather.
This past weekend was a rather cool and chilly one in western Pennsylvania. I took advantage of the opportunity to continue experimenting with cricket feeding. On Friday evening, I stopped at Moraine State Park with a tank of crickets. About 20 martins were present, just sitting on the houses around 6:30 pm. Iím sure they werenít having any success feeding. It was chilly and overcast, in the low 50ís, with light rain and wind, and it had been this way for two days. I was convinced the martins hadnít had much success foraging in the past couple days and were hungry, so I started zinging crickets with the slingshot. No takers. Apparently the martins werenít desperate, but I was still convinced they were hungry. So I decided to try lowering the house and placing crickets directly on the porches. It was chilly enough that the crickets werenít very active; they were moving very slowly. I put crickets on several porches of several different sides of the house and raised it back up, then stood back with my high-power spotting scope to observe. An ASY male was the first to land. Almost immediately, he picked up a cricket and swallowed it. He proceeded to eat 4 or 5 more crickets. An ASY female also picked and ate up several crickets. It was very encouraging. I saw at least one ASY-M and one ASY-F eat a total of 7-8 crickets, and I was only observing one side of the house. Iíd bet martins on the other side of the house were eating them too. It seems like the crawling crickets were the first to get the martinsí attention. Sometimes, they would cock their heads to the side to get a better look before picking up and swallowing the cricket. The next day I was back at Moraine State Park getting more martin housing set up. Weather-wise, it was more of the same Ė cool, overcast, windy, low 50ís. The martins were still just hanging around the houses, a sign they werenít having much success foraging. I tried flinging some crickets but still no takers. About 6:00 pm, I decided to try placing crickets on the house again. I thought the martins would be even more hungry. They were. I put crickets on almost every porch, and when I raised the house, several martins began eating the crickets almost immediately. Through my spotting scope, I saw 3-4 martins pick up and swallow crickets (and I was only observing one side of the house.) Before I left, I lowered the house and put more crickets on the porches (second helpings!). I would slightly cripple some of the crickets by squeezing them. Even though the crickets were already sluggish because of the cold weather, this crippling would keep them from crawling off the porches or into the compartments (and they would still move a little, which is helpful in getting the martinsí attention, although the martins would eat the crickets even if they were dead/motionless) I saw at least 4-5 martins eat a total of about 10-12 crickets. The next day I stopped at the park again. The weather had improved noticeably. It was sunny and in the high 50ís. Not a martin was to be found near the housing; they were all out foraging. I lowered the house to see if any of the dead crickets were still laying around, but there was not a single one. Iíll bet most of them were eaten after I left the evening before. Although I doubt that this 2-3 day cool spell would have killed any martins, its encouraging to know that martins will also take crickets right off the house during bad weather.* Again, large 6-week old crickets can be ordered from Fluker Farms at 1-800-735-8537. They can be delivered by Airborne Express overnight if ordered by noon on weekdays. Iím sure martins would also accept the crickets during extended periods of cool, rainy weather when they have young in the nest, which might otherwise starve.