The Smicksburg Triangle
Ken Kostka
Purple Martin Preservation Alliance
Pittsburgh, PA

    On July 19th, 2006, I set out to do a routine nest check at a 35 pair colony near Butler, PA.  At the last minute, I decided instead to divert to Smicksburg, PA, a small town in northern Indiana County where the Amish community has been attempting unsuccessfully to establish a Purple Martin colony. Over the course of four years, four individual nesting attempts at three locations around Smicksburg have, so far, resulted in zero new colonies. But that may change in 2007.

     I had been contacted several weeks earlier by Enos Miller, an Amish farmer who had attracted one nesting pair of martins; he wanted the young banded, and although I hadn't heard from him for 3 weeks, I calculated that any nestlings should be old enough to band. I also had information about another Amish farmer in Smicksburg who might also have one nesting pair. So I decided to skip my regular nestcheck at a large, established colony in a relatively martin-rich area, on the chance that I might help in some small way to aid in the start of a new colony in an area without martins. The Purple Martin Preservation Alliance (PMPA) believes that the establishment of new colonies in areas of martin scarcity is a critical component of martin conservation.

     This would be my fourth visit to Smicksburg in four years. I first visited the area in 2003, accompanied by Richard Wood, a horse trainer and track owner near Shelocta, PA, about 15 miles to the south, where Duke Snyder of the PMPA manages the only known martin colony in Armstrong Co., PA.  Richard Wood had come to know many of the Amish near Smicksburg because they buy horses from him.  We visited three people who had been trying to attract martins for several years: Dan Schlabach, Milo Miller, and Dan Byler.  All three had wooden T-14's and gourds, but none had martins. They were all surprised to hear about Richard Wood's colony. From about 1970 to 2000, his small colony consisted of a single unmanaged metal martin house (Trio Castle) about 8 ft. high with 6" x 6" compartments and 2" round entrance holes. Interestingly, the fact that the house was metal with small compartments probably accounted for the colony's survival. Without any maintenance, a wooden wooden house would probably have rotted away, and starlings would have taken over a house with large compartments.

       Then in 2004, Richard Woods informed me that Milo Miller, the owner of Miller's Leather Goods in Smicksburg, had attracted one nesting pair of martins. I was excited. Perhaps Smicksburg was on its way to having it's first colony! The Amish in Pennsylvania and Ohio have a strong tradition of hosting Purple Martins. They tend to make good landlords because they often work at home and are able to monitor their colonies closely. This was the case with Milo Miller, whose T-14 was located next to his home and store. I arrived on July 14th. The lone SY (subadult) pair was using a compartment with a crescent entrance hole in a wooden T-14. (Round holes were also available.) The T-14 and a gourd rack were located in a low area right next to a 2-lane highway.  Martins exiting the T-14 flew out almost level with the road.  When I arrived, Milo told me that two of the original 4 nestlings had died within a week of hatching, which occurred on June 29th. He had last done a nest check on July 9th or 10th and found two seemingly healthy nestlings. We lowered the T-14 to do a nest check and band the young. There should have been two 14 day-old nestlings, but instead there was one dead nestling, one debilitated nestling, and quite a few blowfly larvae. I banded the surviving nestling and did a nest replacement, but it died within several days. Milo told me that he had not checked for blowfly larvae at the bottom of the nestbowl during the July 10th nest check.  Blowfly larvae feed on the nestlings at night, then drop off and hide under the nesting material during the day, so they often go undetected during a nestcheck unless the landlord probes the material at the bottom of the nestbowl. These blood-sucking parasites had almost certainly caused the death of these remaining two nestlings. Unfortunately, this is not a rare occurrence, and it can be avoided. VIGILANCE IS THE KEY with new, small colonies, where the future of the colony depends entirely on the breeding success of one or two pairs.

    Before leaving, Milo gave me the location of another person in Smicksburg with a nesting pair of martins - the farm of Enos Miller. Indeed, Enos also had one subadult pair of breeding Purple Martins.  The male had a coded leg band that I was able to read with my high power spotting scope. He had been banded as a nestling at Zeglin's Dairy Farm in Mount Pleasant, PA (54 miles south) in 2003. The pair was using a round-holed Supergourd that contained one healthy nestling, which I banded.   I also saw two other banded (non-breeding) subadult males; one was banded as a nestling at Zeglins Dairy in 2003 - and the other was banded as a nestling at the Saxon Golf Course colony near Saxonburg (36 miles east) in 2003. So three of the four adult martins at the site (see photo) were banded - all from colonies over 30 miles distant. Interestingly, I had seen the Saxonburg bird at Richard Wood's colony on June 30th (two weeks earlier.) Unfortunately, although the lone nestling fledged, no martins returned to breed at Enos Miller's site in 2005, nor did any martins return to breed at Milo Miller's site, where all the nestlings had died.  The Amish of Smicksburg were still without martins.

    Back to the present. It is July 19, 2006, and I am again on my way to Enos Miller's home. He contacted me three weeks ago to tell me that he again had one pair of breeding martins.  When I arrived, he had bad news. After laying eggs, the female disappeared, and then the male. I asked about the other pair of martins that I heard was nesting in Smicksburg. Enos offered to take me to the farm of Emory Miller.  We were so excited talking about martins during the drive that I missed making the correct turns on at least two occasions!  After finally arriving, I met Emory and we lowered his T-14, where the lone subadult pair was nesting in a round-holed compartment. The nest contained one 4 day old nestling and, again, many blowfly.  Two blood-sucking blowfly larvae were actually attached to the nestling's legs. The nestbowl contained many more larvae. Luckily, they were still small (1/8"), and the nestling didn't look too bad. Emory said he had planned to do a nest replacement within a week. I removed the blowfly and did a partial nest replacement, replacing the blowfly-infested nestbowl with fresh material. I told Emory to monitor the nest often and do a full nest replacement in a week. After banding and replacing the nestling, I set up my spotting scope to check the adults for bands. The female had a coded legband! With my spotting scope, I was able to determine that she had been banded  as a nestling at Richard Wood's colony in 2005! I drove Enos back and headed for home.

    As I left Smicksburg, I asked myself just how productive a trip this had been. I had missed doing a nestcheck at a large bustling colony with over 30 nesting pairs to visit an area with only one nesting pair - whose nest contained only one nestling! But I was convinced that if the blowfly larvae had not been removed, that nestling would not have lived to 10 days of age. As it turned out, the nestling did fledge, and Emory Miller informed me in his letter that there were many other martins visiting the site daily until mid-august - a very hopeful sign for 2007. If Emory gets several breeding pairs next year - and a colony is finally established in Smicksburg - it will definitely have been worthwhile!