Real Estate for Purple Martins

Biologists and volunteers are using maps to bring a beloved species back to Wisconsin.

The Gaylord Nelson Audubon Society has a real estate proposition for the Purple Martins of western Wisconsin. For hundreds of years populations of the little songbirds east of the Rockies have dwelled in cities of grand white nest boxes built by people, a habit they picked up when indigenous communities hung gourds for them to use as pre-fab houses. So the question is, if the chapter's volunteers build more, will the birds come?

According to the Breeding Bird Survey, the martin population in Wisconsin has declined 6 percent annually since 2002. Gaylord Nelson is embarking on a first-of-its-kind effort to map every colony across 13 counties in the western part of the state. The ultimate aim is to find the ideal locations to install new summer homes for Purple Martins, which winter in South America. "If you're finding active colonies, you can put up new housing in those areas and grow the population," says field biologist Bob Aeppli of the Purple Martin Conservation Association, adding that discovering where the birds are thriving is an important step toward protecting them more generally.

Through email blasts, local newspaper coverage, and the grapevine, the project is looking to attract volunteers. They'll capture GPS coordinates and addresses for both active and defunct colonies in the area, says amateur ornithologist Steve Betchkal, who is organizing the endeavor. From there, the sky's the limit. "If we can map them, it would be an example to others to say, 'They did it in Wisconsin, why not do it here?' "