As purple martins’ yearly visit looms, some delight, some dread

Since the purple martins left last summer, Mark Schuyler has been counting the days until as many as 50,000 of the birds will descend on downtown Wichita. He thinks the martins, which are gathering as they prepare to migrate to South America, will arrive any day.

“It’s like a National Geographic moment,” he said of watching so many birds land into a small group of trees in the last minutes of twilight.

But David McGuire, and others in charge of keeping parts of downtown clean, are dreading their return. Thousands of birds equate to many thousands of piles of droppings under those roost trees.

Last year’s roost was in about six trees in the heart of Old Town. McGuire, Wichita Park maintenance supervisor, repeatedly sent staff to wash the droppings left on a boardwalk under those trees. As well as costing money, McGuire said the mess could have kept some from visiting the area that’s popular for its nightlife.

Art Huber is concerned with more than just messy sidewalks when he’s had purple martins roosting on the grounds of Via Christi St. Francis at least five of the past 10 years.

“Every time they have a reason to take off, they dump a huge amount of material on everything close by,” said Huber, Via Christi’s facilities administrator, adding that could be on sidewalks, cars and even people. “That material has a lot of bad things in it, and it becomes an infection control issue. When people walk through it, it gets everywhere in the hospital.”

McGuire and Huber said, if possible, they’ll find ways to discourage the martins from roosting on properties under their charge.

Seeking safety in town

Historically purple martins nested in cavities in tall trees. Now nearly all are hatched in special houses people erect for the birds.

Jim Mason, Great Plains Nature Center director, said that’s made the birds comfortable around people. Roosting downtown gives them better protection from hawks, owls and falcons that shy from such areas. Not long after young purple martins fledge, family groups gather in big flocks to prepare for migration.

Schuyler will begin looking for the birds this weekend. There’s no rhyme or reason where they may select to roost this year. He said the largest concentrations usually appear the first two weeks of August. Numbers will rise and fall as the migration gets going. Purple martins nest as far north as central Canada.

A popular wildlife display

As many as 80 people gathered in the hospital’s parking lot when the birds roosted at Via Christi several years ago. They ranged from families with small children to senior citizens who watched the show from inside their cars. Some well-traveled wildlife watchers have told Schuyler it’s one of the top wildlife displays in Kansas.

Viewers don’t have to arrive early or stay long. Squadrons of purple martins generally appear at about sun down, or a little after. It takes only about 15 minutes for about 20,000, an average population in early August, to pack into as few as five trees. That’s a pretty high concentration of bird poo for folks like McGuire or Huber to deal with.

McGuire has been researching ways to discourage the birds from nesting in Old Town again. Federal law says he can harass the birds as long as they aren’t nesting, but problems could arise if any of the birds are killed, even accidentally, according to John Brooks, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement supervisor.

In the past Huber has used noise and activity to scare the purple martins, as well as crows and pigeons, off the grounds. A few years ago Via Christi trimmed away much of the dozen pear trees where the martins had roosted along the hospital’s east side. The birds haven’t been back the past two years.

“We are very happy they decided they didn’t like it and went elsewhere,” Huber said, “but who knows where they’ll be this year.”

Schuyler is sympathetic to the problems and would like to find ways to help. Possibly promoting the gathering might draw enough visitors to downtown Wichita to at least make it worth the city’s time and money. Two years ago he visited a roost of about 250,000 purple martins in Tulsa and found people were gathering at restaurants before going to watch the birds.

He thinks it would be possible to get volunteers to help with the chore, adding he’d bring his power-washer to a roost site once a week. Schuyler said it’s possible that fire departments, needing to empty their engines of water, might be able to help.

McGuire said he’s as ready as he can be for this year’s flights.

“Our plan is to let nature take it’s course this year,” he said. “If they show up (in Old Town) we may try to move them. If they don’t show up, I’m good with that. If they do, and make a mess, we’ll figure out how to clean it up.”

Michael Pearce: 316-268-6382, @PearceOutdoors

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