The Purple Martin.—Robin Doughty and Rob Fergus. 2002. University of Texas Press, Austin. viii + 93 pp., 18 text figures. ISBN 0-292-71615-X. $19.95 (cloth).
Martin mania is serious madness, a contagious affliction affecting thousands of otherwise ordinary people in North America. I myself am a happy victim—each spring, all day and every day for week after week, we blast Purple Martin (Progne subis) dawn song from speakers located underneath our long-empty martin houses in the hopes of establishing a new colony. In The Purple Martin, Robin Doughty and Rob Fergus try to explain this madness to martin lovers and to bewildered onlookers. Purple Martins have long been one of America's favorite birds because they give us a unique window to the natural world from our own backyards. Martin landlords and bird enthusiasts will enjoy this book.
This book provides a detailed and accurate species account of the classification, breeding range, and natural history of the species. These are the tools that martin landlords will need to truly understand the birds they devote so much time and energy to. The writing style in these chapters is somewhat dry and academic, so casual readers may have to work a bit to digest the information. For example, one of the more recently discovered and titillating aspects of Purple Martin behavior is their extra-pair mating system. Older males routinely copulate with the mates of young males, and DNA fingerprinting has shown that yearling males sire few young in their own nests! Older males even use dawn song to attract youngsters to join the colony. Yet, Doughty and Fergus describe this without enthusiasm by saying “older males may cuckold yearling counterparts as they copulate with untended yearling females.”
The highlight of the book for me was the historical account of the early interest in martins by colonists and ornithologists during the 1700s and 1800s. Colonists observed Native Americans providing natural gourds as nest sites for martin colonies, so adopted this tradition and built birdhouses for martins. Martin houses were widespread and common in the eastern and southern U.S. even in the 1800s. Just think: people provided housing for and had a keen interest in martins before House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) and European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) began their rampage on North America. The next chapter is equally entertaining, as it describes the special role that Purple Martins played in the developing national interest in bird protection. The founder of the Audubon Society, George Grinnell, used martins as one of his examples for why the nation should protect, rather than harvest, birds.
People have long housed, and even marketed, Purple Martins due to their presumed ability to eat pest insects. This book does a good job of presenting the facts on martin diets, which show they have a highly varied diet of flying insects of all sorts. The chapter on Purple Martin promotion details the many societies devoted to Purple Martins and their welfare. The book even features a classic photograph (p. 64) of a sign that claims that “martins can eat 2000 mosquitos a day.” This claim has been the subject of some disagreement among martin promoters and societies, though the book does not discuss this controversy.
This book will be useful as a general reference on the species for academics as well as a somewhat technical treatment for your average birder and Purple Martin landlord with no specialized training in biology. It also has a review of some of the key scientific literature on Purple Martins, which will be helpful to martin landlords and birders who are interested in pursuing these topics further. I recommend this book especially for martin lovers; its matter-of-fact style delivers a wealth of facts that martin landlords will enjoy learning.