Emergency Cold Weather Feeding in the Spring of 2005
Ken Kostka
Purple Martin Preservation Alliance
http://www.purple-martin.org
Pittsburgh, PA
03/14/06

Please note: Purple Martins typically eat only flying insects and will starve to death during extended periods of continuously cold or rainy weather when insects are inactive. After two days of very poor weather, martins become so hungry that they can be coaxed to accept large crickets that are tossed into the air near their perches. Eventually, they can be trained to land on a platform feeder to eat the crickets, which can then be mixed with scrambled eggs, a much less expensive substitute. However the first and most important step in training your martins to accept emergency supplemental feedings is to train your martins to accept tossed crickets. Crickets look like grasshoppers, which are something martins normally eat in the wild. For information on this first and most crucial step, go to Emergency Cricket Feeding and 40 Starving Martins Eat 900+ Hand-Tossed Crickets

An extended period of poor weather in early May of 2005 caused the death of at least 94 adult Purple Martins at nine colonies north of Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania.  Of these deaths, 74 (79%) occurred at colonies where martins were not being fed. Starting on April 27th and running through May 4, Southwestern Pennsylvania experienced a week of poor weather when temperatures barely made it out of the 50's, with clouds, wind, rain, and highs that were 20 degrees below normal for several continuous days. All temperatures are for Pittsburgh International Airport, but the colonies involved are located about 40 miles north of Pittsburgh, and the temperatures were probably at least 2 to 3 degrees below those reported.

Colony # pairs (2004) Reported Deaths Fed or Not Fed      
Saxon Golf Course 28 2 Fed      
Duke Snyder 40 6 Fed      
McDanels Launch 30 12 Fed      
Gastown Racetrack 18 0 Fed      
Dean Kildoo 80 44 Not Fed      
Davis Hollow 15 26 Not Fed      
Bill Watson 20 0 Not Fed      
Roy Bauder 20 2 Not Fed      
George Duncan 15 2 Not Fed      
Total   94        

 

Date High/Normal High Low/Normal Low Departure from Normal Precip General Conditions
April 27, 2005 56/65 44/43 -4 0.02 cool/cloudy
April 28, 2005 55/65 42/43 -5 0.01 cold/windy
April 29, 2005 56/65 45/44 -4 0.01 cool/cloudy
April 30, 2005 55/66 50/44 -2 0.32 rain/cool
May 1, 2005 54/66 40/44 -8 0.01 cold/windy
May 2, 2005 48/66 42/45 -10 trace cold/rain
May 3, 2005 47/67 38/45 -13 trace cold
May 4, 2005 55/67 32/45 -12 trace cool/sunny

The impact of May 1-4 might not have been as bad but for the poor-to-marginal week of weather preceding it, during which the martins were barely getting enough to eat.  The martins headed into a 3-4 day period of extreme cold without the benefit of even a few days of really nice weather. As early as April 24th, I was feeding mealworms at the Saxon Golf Course colony, and almost all the martins were eating.  I would preferred to have had unlimited time and money to feed the martins at ALL the colonies during this bad weather event, but feeding at three of the sites - which were all 30 miles apart - was a full time job. Luckily, I was scheduled off of work for two of the four critical days, and I called off on two others.

    79% of the reported deaths occurred at colonies where martins were not being fed. I believe the actual number of deaths at these sites was much higher. At the Roy Bauder site, only 2 deaths were reported, but Roy's colony dropped from 20 pairs in 2004 to about 10 pairs in 2005. Many must have died away from the housing.

Rather than try to re-invent the wheel, I have decided to simply include all journal entries relating to this weather-event from April 24th through May 5th. I have highlighted especially interesting or important events and observations in red, and added material for clarity.

 April 24, 2005.  Very cold. Snow. I fed the martins at the Saxon Golf Course colony. [They have been trained to take supplemental feedings since 2002]. I went to the McDanels Launch colony site at Moraine State Park and tried teaching those martins to accept tossed crickets. Now is a good time since they are a little stressed (hungry) because of the cold. I succeeded in getting 8-10 martins to take the crickets (of about 25 present) I'm elated that at least this many are eating, because once the first few martins catch on, the others imitate and it's just a matter of time until just about every one is eating tossed crickets. I wonder if any martins that were trained to eat as subadults at other colonies have had something to do with these birds catching on so quickly.

    I then drove to the Dean Kildoo colony in Grove City. Dean had many of his martins trained to eat eggs off of a large, centrally-located platform during the bad weather event of 2002. He tells me that he trained them to eat the scrambled eggs (in 2002) by placing some just inside each entrance hole of a  well-populated T-14. After they ate them out of the compartments, they took them off of the platform.

    I also stopped at the colony of Duke Snyder. He trained his martins to eat tossed crickets last season. He told me about how easy it is to flip crickets (or mealworms) very high with the long-handled plastic spoons that come with ice cream at Dairy Queen. (It's true. I never again tossed crickets or mealworms without one.)

April 25, 2005.  Very cold and windy in the AM. I fed the martins at the Saxon colony. In the early afternoon, I realized that I had forgotten to check the T-14 insert traps that I set the evening before to catch a few starlings that were using two compartment with Conley Excluder entrances. When I check, I find that I have captured two banded adult male Purple Martins. One is Yellow K238 and the other is Yellow K216. Two days later, on April 27, I spotted both martins at the site; neither had abandoned.

    Around 3:00 PM, it became sunny, but it was still cold and windy, with temps in the 50's. I drove to the Gastown Racetrack colony in Shelocta, the only known colony in Armstrong County, PA.  I was determined to teach these birds to take supplemental, emergency feedings. There were no martins around; they were probably out trying to feed, but I seriously doubted they were getting anything. I drove around the large lake (Keystone Lake) that is only 1 mile from the colony site, and I saw Tree Swallows and Barn Swallows skimming for insects just above the water's surface, but no martins.

    I returned to the site and began to play the dawnsong to draw the martins in.  By 6:30 PM, most martins had returned to the colony site, and I tried tossing (spoon-flicking) crickets. A few caught on within 10 or 15 minutes, and by 7:30 PM, the 15-20 martins present had eaten almost all of my 300-400 crickets!! I was elated!  The owner of the site was very impressed and was thrilled to see the martins going after the flung crickets.  He asked me for a few crickets so that he could show his wife the next day. The spoon-flicking works REALLY well. You can get the crickets very high and far.

April 26, 2005.  Duke went to the Gastown colony and fed them again. He was very excited about them having learned to accept the tossed crickets.

April 27, 2005.  10:00 AM.  Cool but not too bad. At the Saxon colony, I counted 15 ASY-M.

April 28, 2005. 8:30 AM. I drove to the McDanels colony at Moraine State Park and toss-fed crickets and mealworms.  Almost all of the 25-30 birds were eating. I stopped at Duke Snyder's colony and he was feeding his colony as well. I then drove to the Gastown racetrack colony in Shelocta and toss-fed those birds. I stopped at the colony site of Roy Bauder in Portersville, but no martins were present. At Saxon GC, I fed the martins mealworms on the feeder. (They have been trained to eat off of a platform feeder since 2002.) They appeared to be very hungry. They are not accustomed to eating eggs or crickets, but I am out of mealworms.

April 29, 2005. Cloudy. 50 degrees. 7:15 AM.  I put 200 crickets and 6 scrambled eggs on the platform feeder at Saxon. I did not see any martins eating when I left. It will be cool and cloudy all day, with highs in the 50's. My ultimate goal is to get all martins to eat egg off of the platform feeders. This is best accomplished by mixing insects in with the scrambled eggs.

April 30, 2005. It rained in the afternoon and got cold.  I fed in the late afternoon at Saxon GC. I had to work most of he day, or I would have gone to the McDanels colony too.  Duke fed the martins at Gastown Racetrack and set up a feeding platform. He tossed crickets and tried to get the martins to start eating off of the feeder by tossing crickets right above the feeder.

May 01, 2005.  Cold and windy.  I fed the martins at Saxon, then went to McDanels. There were not a lot of birds visible. I removed three gourds from the gourd rack and replaced them with three feeding trays, then put scrambled eggs and crickets on the feeding trays.

I went to Duke Snyder's colony and he was feeding his martins.

I drove to Gastown and put eggs and crickets on all 4 trays. One adult male and one adult female landed almost immediately and started eating crickets, so Duke must have done a good job yesterday. The female ate about 15 crickets in a row. The male ate about 7-8 crickets.

I played the dawnsong to get more martins interested. Eventually, 8-10 landed on the feeder trays to eat. I also tossed crickets to numerous other martins sitting around on housing. This is key. Don't assume that just because some birds are eating off of the feeder trays that all will. It's always best to supplement tray- feeding with toss-feeding to get the newly arrived or untrained birds to recognize and accept tossed crickets as food, which they can then learn to take from the feeding trays. Tossing crickets just above the feeding trays also key. The  martins will see some land on the trays and realize they can just land and pick them up, just like they would pick up a piece of eggshell or nesting material.

I then drove back to Mcdanels at Moraine State park to further train those martins. The weather had grown worse. I was sure they would be hungry. The best time to train martins to take emergency feedings is after a few days of very poor weather when they have had very little to eat, and are very hungry but not weakened to the point where they can't fly well or are attempting to communal cavity roost. Timing is everything.

I toss-fed crickets above the trays on the gourd rack and above the T-14, where most of the birds were perched. Put egg and crickets in the trays. I discovered that the martins much prefer the giant mealworms to the crickets. Plus, the mealworms are  a little cheaper and much easier to handle. They can also be flicked much higher and farther when training. Most of the 15-20 martins at Moraine were now taking the tossed crickets.  I stopped at Saxon GC on the way home and fed them again. Feeding martins that are trained to take food from a stationary platform is a snap - just dump the food in and walk away.

May 02, 2006.  Very poor weather. rain. cold overcast. I fed at Saxon GC then headed for Moraine.  One dead adult male on the ground at McDanels.  I found another very weak ASY-M in the Trio Castle.  He died a short time later.  They ate many flung crickets and some are eating from the trays. I went to Bill Watson's colony in Slippery Rock. None dead there.  Then I went to Dean Kildoo's colony in Grove City. One adult male sputtered to the ground as we stood there surveying the colony. I asked Dean if he had been feeding and he said no. I had a bad feeling about his birds, and urged him to fry up some scrambled eggs and put them in the feeding tray immediately. I added 20 giant mealworms.  One or two birds landed but I didn't see them eat anything. It has been three years since his martins have taken supplemental feedings and I wonder if, in that time, he has lost a lot of older birds that were trained to feed.  Also, it is already the third day of bad weather and many of his birds may already be communal cavity roosting and/or very weak. Dean also has a debilitated adult female in a bucket. He said she took some water. [Note: My bad feeling turned out to be true; three days later when the weather broke, Dean removed 44 dead martins from his housing.]  I tried tossing mealworms but it was no use. I went back to McDanels and fed, then stopped at Duke's where he was feeding his martins, then stopped at Saxon GC and fed for a final time that day.

May 03, 2006.  Still cold. Some sun. Bad. I fed at Saxon, then McDanels. Two more dead at McDanels. Eventually, 7 martins go to the ground, are captured, and placed in a bucket in the van. Some eat crickets and mealworms that I throw in the bucket. I fed a LOT of mealworms and crickets to the martins at Moraine. I went to Bill Watson's site in Slippery Rock. Nobody home.  I flung 20 crickets at an ASY-F who never budged. I also tossed 5-6 crickets at an adult male without luck. I drove to Dean Kildoo's where I found 2-3 more birds down and which flew weakly when I approached. The scene is grim, ominous. Dean has put up 2-3 more trays with egg, but his birds are not eating.

I go back to McDanels to feed the birds there.  The scene is completely different. The martins are out and jockeying around the perches and housing. I fling more crickets and place more in the tray, along with scrambled egg. More and more martins are learning to eat from the trays. I'm ecstatic. All of the sudden, I hear alarm calls and the martins flush. I hear a loud scrabbling noise, and when I look towards the gourd rack with the feeding trays, I see a large brown shape in one of the trays. It is a Coopers Hawk and it is struggling with an adult male martin! But no, it's the decoy I have placed in the tray to coax martins into using the feeding trays. I secured it to the floor of one of the trays with a sheet metal screw. After wrestling with it for a few seconds, the hawk gives up and flies off empty-handed! Chalk one up for the martins! 

I remove one very weak and thin female from the Trio Castle, making seven martins in the "rescue bucket" inside my van. Some are eating and some aren't, but I figure that even just bringing them inside overnight will allow them to save enough energy to pull through. The weather is supposed to start breaking tomorrow, with sun and temperatures getting into the upper 50's.

I see a martin land on the roof of the picnic pavilion so I try throwing crickets onto the shingled roof. Throwing food onto a roof is like placing food on a large platform. The martins can land and eat instead of having to fly around and expend energy. It works. The martin scrambles over and snaps up the crickets. Several more land and join in.  A roof or other flat elevated surface is just as good as an official feeder.  (Martins will even land on the ground if they are desperate.) I decide to throw some scrambled egg as well, Soon a gull lands and starts to eat the crickets and mealworms, scaring the martins away.  I have to chase it away several times.

I notice that several martins are flying very low and weakly. I try successfully to feed them by tossing the mealworms directly into their flight path, timing my throws so that they expend minimal energy to adjust their course and catch the food. Even a few calories now can mean the difference between life and death.

A couple pull up in their car and witness me feeding the martins.  I was anxiously attempting to round up several martins that had fallen to the ground and at the same time trying to toss feed a bunch of others, all while trying to answer their questions. They must have sensed my mild state of panic and the direness of the situation, because they generously gave me ten dollars on the spot. 

I stop at Duke Snyder's colony on the way back to Saxon and discover that Duke has gotten his martins to eat eggs. He is flinging pea-sized pieces of eggs with the plastic spoon and martins are snapping them up. His success was made possible by the fact that he had already trained his martins to eat tossed crickets and mealworms.  Then he got a little lucky. He ran out of insects and had only egg to toss up.  The martins were so desperate that they began eating it instead of spitting it out, and afterwards accepted it readily!  Now they clean several scrambled eggs off of a feeder in no time, without needing any insects mixed in. I still haven't trained the colony at Saxon to eat egg exclusively, and they've been trained to eat off of the platform for 3 years. I know it's because they never got desperate enough. I always had enough mealworms mixed in so that they were never hungry enough to eat the eggs. In the following few weeks, I was successful in getting more and more martins to eat egg. An American Robin began coming to the feeder and eating eggs also; my first instinct was to chase him off, but it occurred to me that he might help teach the martins to eat egg!

When I get back to Saxon GC, I attempt to feed but, mysteriously, the martins don't seem nearly as hungry as I thought they'd be, although they do eat from the trays eventually. I notice, however, that very little of the egg is left in the trays. I have been mixing mealworms into it and they usually just pick out the mealworms. They must have gotten hungry enough to eat most of it.  Later, I talk to the Golf Course manager and he tells me that he was mowing earlier in the day and the martins were going crazy following him around. He says they even followed him into a large stand of tall trees - something they never did before.

May 04, 2005.  Sunny, but still very cool in the AM. It warmed up in the PM. Two of the seven birds I took in overnight are dead in the morning. I band the remaining five and release them. Their weights are 44, 42, 42, 41, and 38 grams. Three are found dead the next day. At Saxon GC, I put eggs and mealworms in the feeder at 8:00 AM, then head for Moraine. At 9:00 AM, at McDanels Launch at Moraine State Park, I arrive to find several birds eating dead crickets off of the ground in the parking lot. I do not find any dead or grounded martins!  At first I assume they are crickets that were left from the day before, but I later find that Doug Falk of Fombell was there feeding in the early AM.

Some martins are flying low and weak, with fecal stains or damaged feathers. I suspect they have emerged from an overnight communal cavity roost in the T-14, because four martins fly out as it was lowered.  I try to toss crickets and mealworms into their flight path so they get as many as possible. Just about every one of the martins is now well-trained and they are swarming around me. I try to target what look like the weaker birds. Several martins are landing on the pavement of the parking lot and picking up crickets and mealworms that were missed or dropped. If I toss a mealworm or cricket within a few feet of a martin that is already sitting on the ground, it will simply waddle over and eat it. I feed many this way. They are not too weak to fly, just conserving energy. Eventually, they do fly off and back to the housing.

Jeff Hunt called to say that he only found a total of nine dead martins at all of the three colonies (average size 20 pairs) that he manages 10-30 miles south of Pittsburgh. When I compare this to the more than ninety dead martins in the colonies 30-50 miles north of Pittsburgh, I am more convinced than ever that the temperatures in the area of the southern colonies was about 5 degrees warmer, just enough to allow martins to get enough food to get by.

May 05, 2005.  At Saxon GC, I fed the martins the last of the mealworms and lowered the T-14's to check for dead. There were only two. But I would soon receive bad news from elsewhere. Dean Kildoo called to say that he found 44 dead martins - 27 males and 17 females. Twenty were found in one compartment. At the other end of Lake Arthur, at the Davis Hollow Marina, 26  martins were found dead. Duke only lost six, and I only lost 10 at the McDanels Launch colony. Other colonies located further from the lake only reported 1 or 2 dead. However, one of these colonies went from 20 pair to 10 pair after this weather event, and I am convinced that many of the martins from these smaller outlying colonies came to the lake to forage for insects and ended up staying at the lakeside colonies. Or, they went to bigger colonies where there were more opportunities for communal cavity roosting, like the Dean Kildoo or Duke Snyder colonies.

Summary:  At least 103 Purple Martins perished at nine colonies in the Greater Pittsburgh area during the cold weather event of early May. However, several colonies were newly-trained to take supplemental feeding, including the McDanels Launch colony at Moraine State Park in Portersville, PA and the Gastown Racetrack colony in Shelocta, PA. I estimate that at least 100-150 martins were saved from starvation as a result of the emergency supplemental feedings.

Discussion: Once landlords have trained their martins to accept supplemental feedings, they should feed them occasionally every season during bouts of poor weather, even when there is no threat of starvation. This intermittent feeding will help them to remember how to take the feedings when martin-killing weather does strike, and it will indoctrinate new and younger martins into the feeding tradition. Colony managers should strive to train their martins to eat from a stationary platform, which is more efficient than tossing crickets since multiple martins can feed simultaneously, and the martins expend less energy.  Landlords should focus on getting their martins to eat scrambled egg, which is inexpensive and readily available. Crickets and mealworms are expensive, and must be mail-ordered in advance of a weather emergency (although crickets can be frozen and stored).

The first step in training your martins to accept scrambled egg is to train your martins to accept tossed crickets. Crickets look like grasshoppers, which are something martins normally eat in the wild. For information on this first and most crucial step, go to Emergency Cricket Feeding  Once they have accepted tossed crickets, you can substitute giant mealworms, which they seem to prefer. Once the martins have accepted tossed insects, the next step is to toss the mealworms and crickets just above an elevated  platform (such as an eggshell feeder), so that the missed bugs land on this platform. Also, add a few crickets or mealworms to the platform. Eventually, the martins will realize that they can land and pick up the insects.  The last step is to mix the crickets and/or mealworms in with scrambled eggs. Really work them in so that the martins are forced to eat little bits of egg when they pick out the insects. Eventually, they'll realize they can eat the eggs too, and when they do, the insects can be left out.  The key is to get those few martins to take each new step.  Martins tend to imitate each other and so it's not necessary to teach each and every martin. When they see other martins going after tossed crickets, they do it too.  When one martin starts gulping down eggs, others will usually follow.

 There is no strict formula for going from tossed crickets to eggs on a platform. For example, Duke got his martins to eat eggs by tossing pea-sized pieces of egg. It worked, and then they ate eggs off of a platform without any insects. Keep in mind that for untrained martins to start eating scrambled eggs - something totally foreign to them - they must be very very very hungry. Another strategy is to place insects on the porches of housing.  One landlord placed egg just inside each compartment.  But it is important not to wait until it is too late to start training.  After a few days of poor weather, martins will be hungry.  Don't wait until martins have begun to communal cavity roost or have become too weak to fly. Martins can only go for a few 3 days without food before they begin to die. This may vary somewhat depending on the outside temperature.  Extremely cold weather will cause martins to burn their reserves faster. Keep an eye on the weather forecast, but remember that forecasts are often wrong! It's not a bad idea to have a supply of frozen crickets on hand in the spring, especially if you live in the north. One tip on freezing crickets - don't freeze them before storing them. If you do, they become stiff and the legs will break off when you pack them into the ziploc bags.  The legs help the martins to recognize them as flying insects. The best thing to do is place the whole box of crickets into the refrigerator for about 30 minutes.  This will just knock them out. Then, you can pack them into ziploc bags while they are still pliable. Put about 500 in a bag (so you don't have to thaw them all at once) then place them in the freezer.  Consider freezing the crickets to kill them even if you're not buying them ahead of time. Even thought temperatures below about 45 degrees will cause the crickets to become inactive, if the temperatures start to climb while you're feeding, they will begin to "come alive" and crawl or hop away. An hungry adult martin can eat about 30-40 crickets per day, so for a colony of about 20-30 pairs, order at least 2000 crickets to start.

One big advantage of having martins trained to take supplemental feedings is that they can not only save themselves, but their offspring as well. Though not as common, extended periods of poor weather can strike even in late May and June, when martins have vulnerable nestlings that can starve after a few days of cool, rainy weather that would not kill adults.  When martins are trained to take supplemental feedings, they are quick to feed their young as well. And every nestling that survives to fledge furthers the cause of martin conservation. After all, he or she could become a colony founder!

Phone number for Fluker Farms: 1-800-735-8537.  When buying crickets, get the 6 WEEK OLD size, which are the largest available. When buying mealworms, get the GIANT size.

Recipe for microwaved eggs:  Mix 6 eggs and 1/4 cup water in a large glass bowl.  Microwave for 1 minute, then mix again. Repeat until eggs are cooked.