Passion for Purple Martins keeps Sieben busy

Purple Martin Working Group works to build population

Purple Martins are particular about where they nest, according to Ray Sieben of rural Royalton. A member of the Purple Martin Working Group, Sieben began his efforts to draw a Purple Martin colony in 1993 but didn’t see any martins until May 21, 2007. His yard now sports a number of houses and gourd racks housing 91 pair of martins. Pictured above are a martin nestling (outside the lower right opening) and Sieben.

Although Purple Martin numbers have been drifting downward, groups and individuals continue to give their time and energy to reverse that trend.

The Purple Martin Working Group’s annual “Martin Fest” was hosted by Ray Sieben and his family east of Royalton in June, with more than 150 people attending the 10th anniversary event.

Teaching sessions during the morning event were given by Kelly Applegate, Working Group coordinator and biologist with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe; Audubon Society member Ron Windingstad and Keith Rydell of the Minnesota Bluebird Recovery project.

“Kelly talked about Purple Martins, Windingstad spoke about the American Kestrel, and Rydell gave a talk about bluebirds,” Sieben said. “We provided lunch with donations from the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and the Audubon Society, and door prizes were given out after lunch.”

Sieben’s interest in birds goes back to his grade school years. A science class assignment included finding and recording all the birds he could see in his yard.

“There was a Purple Martin on my list, but when I climbed the tree and made a nest check it turned out to be a grackle,” he said.

After buying a farm northeast of Royalton in the early 1990s, Sieben spotted an ad in the Record for bluebird houses. He went to buy a bluebird house from Jacob Erhardt and came home with a Purple Martin house, too.

Purple Martins are the largest swallow in North America, with a length of eight inches and wingspan of 16 inches. In certain light conditions, the sheen on the males’ bodies can appear blue or purple.

Sieben put the house up in 1993 and waited for martins. He moved the house to different locations, but still no martins.

“Then I found Vern Virnig in Pierz, who specializes in martin houses, and after following some advice from him, my first martins came May 21, 2007,” said Sieben.

That first year Sieben hosted two pair of martins, and the next year 11 pair nested in his yard. In 2009, there were 37 pair, 45 pair in 2011 and this year, 91 pair.

“They sing really pretty when they are mating,” he said. “They are semi-domesticated and very friendly, although they are protective when they have babies.”

Sieben conducts nest checks every five days as time allows. During his last next check, he found 139 eggs and 337 babies.

Nest checks are done to monitor the colony for parasites, competitors, wet nests and number of active breeding pairs, eggs and nestlings.

“Nest checks take four hours,” said Lanae Sieben, a Royalton eighth grade student. She has worked with the martins since she was little, mostly helping with next checks.

According to James R. Hill III, founder of the Purple Martin Conservation Association, many of the people who get into the martin hobby don’t understand or realize the effort and commitment that correctly hosting martins means.

In a report posted to, Hill encourages martin landlords to conduct weekly nest checks. Many don’t do weekly checks because of incorrect assumptions or improper housing.

Martin housing needs to allow for easy, vertical lowering rather than housing on rigid poles, or poles that only tilt down. Houses should have compartments without doors that open easily.

Hill goes on to say that the mistaken impression that lowering martin houses during the nesting season is somehow harmful to the martins and will scare them away is incorrect. There is no risk that this will cause nest failure or colony-site abandonment. Hill is convinced that landlords who conduct weekly nest checks raise significantly more nestlings per nest than landlords who don’t.

“Purple Martin numbers are declining,” said Sieben, “due most commonly to competition from starlings and hawk attacks.

Sieben gives a lot of credit to Virnig for raising Purple Martin awareness. “He goes door to door promoting martins, gives out information and builds martin houses,” Sieben said.

Martin houses should be located in open areas more than 30 feet from human houses and 50 feet from trees. They return to the same nesting site every year as long as it stays suitable.

“Martins prefer one room per level per side of the house,” said Sieben. “The compartments should be eight inches wide by eight to ten inches deep, with starling-resistant entrances.”

Martins’ first nesting preference is for natural gourds, and after that for a wooden house with large compartments. Gourds of any type can be fitted with starling-resistant entrances as well as a removable side-hole plug so they can be checked the same as houses.

In addition to the martin colony in his yard, Sieben maintains and manages a martin house at Crane Meadows. “Sometimes I do a class when kids are out there on field trips,” he said.

Purple Martins migrate based on the amount of light each day, going to Brazil every winter. Because their trip is based on light and not weather, they sometimes arrive back here in the spring while it’s still cold.

“Martins’ worst enemies are cold weather, owl attacks and blowfly larva,” Sieben said.

Sieben bands about 50 birds each year, and their movements are tracked. “One of mine that was banded here is now living on Mille Lacs lake,” he said.

When preparing for their migration, martins form roosting colonies. One such colony at Lake Osakis in 2010 had an estimated 70,000 martins, as reported by the Working Group.

Currently partnering with the Working Group are: the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, Audubon Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Purple Martin Conservation Association and the Circle of Flight Conservation Program.

When asked about his passion and dedication to Purple Martins, Sieben responded that it’s not just a hobby.

“When I do something, I usually go overboard,” he said. “My bird enthusiasm must come from my mom’s side of the family; my cousin is as much of a bird nut as I am.”

“I just like to help people start martin colonies,” said Virnig. “I made a lot of mistakes over the years. Hopefully, people who want to get into martins can benefit from the mistakes I made.”

For more information, call Sieben at (320) 248-2289, Virnig at (320) 468-6812 or Applegate at (763) 221-0320.