Farm opens door for purple martins

Alberta producer kicks off a building boom in condominium-style bird houses that sees the species’ population explode

WETASKIWIN, Alta. — Over the next few weeks, Bob Buskas’ eyes will be on his fields as he begins to seed.

He also has an eye to the sky as he waits for the purple martins to return to his farm.

It takes about two to three weeks for the birds to fly from their winter home in South America to the Wetaskiwin farm where they were born. Friends in Texas often call to let him know the birds are on their way. It takes the birds about a week to fly from Texas. They trickle into Alberta over eight weeks, depending on the weather.

“They come in waves. They migrate in front of low-pressure systems.”

The early birds have their choice of one of 113 purple martin compartments in the nine units and other individual homes scattered throughout the yard.

In the last two years, Buskas has raised more than 400 purple martin birds, a far cry from the lone pair he saw more than 20 years ago, a sighting that sparked his passion for purple martins.

“When I started the numbers were so low,” said Buskas, who credits the easier-to-use house designs for both birds and people for the increased bird numbers and interest in providing condominium-style homes for the birds. In 1996, he knew of only one other pair within 16 kilometres.

A piece of styrofoam is placed in each compartment to help protect the birds from cold weather. The birds create a round nest in the styrofoam. Buskas said the insulation is important for keeping the birds alive, especially during prairie cold spells. | Mary MacArthur photo

“We have made great progress in the last 20 years.”

Now, he has 103 to 105 pairs nesting each year in the 113 compartments in his yard. In nearby Camrose, Wetaskiwin and on local farms, individuals manage hundreds of purple martin houses throughout the area. Buskas established another colony at a nearby golf course to ensure his farmyard doesn’t get too crowded.

“It is amazing how many bugs it takes to feed a colony this size.”

When Bob and Irene moved to the farm in 1985 there was an old, fixed-pole purple martin house in the yard that nothing ever nested in. One morning in 1992, he saw an unusual bird and got out his bird book. It was a purple martin. That initial sighting, along with the unusual, unused birdhouse in the yard kickstarted a 20-year interest in purple martins.

Buskas makes eight to 12 of his North Star design purple martin houses each year. After 20 years, the Wetaskiwin farmer has created a design that attracts purple martins but deters sparrows, swallows and predators. | Mary MacArthur photo

It took five years to establish the first nesting pair. In the second year, two pairs made their home on the farm and after four years there were 10 pairs. Now, his yard is full of the squawking, talking birds that zip high to catch insects and dive into a pond to drink water and cool their body on a hot day.

In the beginning, Buskas met up with people on internet forums and at festivals across North America, and gathered information on how to design a better birdhouse.

His North Star Purple Martin house, a condominium-style home, and the Buskas Bungalows, for the birds who want a bit more space, are considered premium-designed birdhouses. He has sold hundreds of plans and pre-made houses that have helped the members of the swallow family thrive.

Because of the high cost of steel, Buskas has switched to aluminum poles this year to make the houses easier to raise and lower. | Mary MacArthur photo

Over the years, the compartments were enlarged, insulation added in the boxes, to ensure bird survival, entrances were offset, a winch added to raise and lower the houses and starling-resistant entrances added to prevent starlings and sparrows nesting in the houses.

“By staggering the entrances, we upped the occupancy from 50 to 95 percent,” said Buskas. Some males are very territorial and don’t want other birds near their home.

“You always let the martins tell you what they want.”

He also removed a dowel at the entrance, which owls used to hang onto while they reached a foot into the house to steal an egg or small bird.

Also on the farm are gourd-shaped houses, single family residences used mostly in the southern United States where cold isn’t a problem. At the Buskas farm, these are the overflow houses the stragglers, or single males, also called subadults, are left with if they arrive late to the farm.

The gourd style purple martin houses are overflow houses for Buskas’s purple martins. The birds prefer the warmer houses made out of wood. The gourds are favoured by purple martins in the United States, where they stay cooler. | Mary MacArthur photo

Most of the males will return to about 50 kilometres of where they were born. The males arrive first, scouting out the area and then looking for a mate. It is the female who has the final say on which compartment will be home for the summer.

Once the young have started to fly, the parents spend about two weeks teaching them to catch insects and become independent. Just like any teenagers on a sunny evening, the parents have a tough time putting the young birds to bed.

As soon as the young are independent, the parents fly south, through Minnesota, Texas and on to their winter home in South America.

During cold spells, Buskas tosses crickets and mealworms into the air to feed the birds when they can’t find enough food.

Buskas invented a winch system to lower and raise the purple martin houses. | Mary MacArthur photo

“We save them from starving to death.”

Buskas sells pre-built homes or plans with exact dimensions and assembly instructions. It took about two years to edit and finalize the booklet and about five years to adjust information on his Northern Skys Purple Martin website where he directs people for information.

Meeting new people has been one of the best parts of being part of the community, he said.

During Covid-19, with more people staying home, the interest in the birds has increased and Buskas can spend hours in his converted hog barn building houses and getting the compartments ready for the birds arrival.

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