2022 Year in Review: Dr. Karra Pierce, Director of Veterinary Services

It’s time to look back on 2022! Check our blog between Christmas and New Year’s for a variety of stories and memories of 2022 from the staff and volunteers of the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

2022 was the year of the Purple Martin. Purple Martins are uncommonly admitted to the Center – with just 35 admitted in the last 11 years – 21 of which were admitted in 2022! That means that 60 percent of those Purple Martin admissions occurred this past year. While all of these patients were important to me – 19 of them made a lasting impression. Not because of the individual patients (although those are two other wonderful stories) but because of the people, and the network of Purple Martin “landlords”, I was able to meet.

Purple Martins are aerial insectivores that live and reproduce in large colonies. They are the largest swallow species in North America and long-distance migrants, spending their winters in South America. Due to habitat destruction and climate change, this species now relies on manmade nest boxes to survive and reproduce. These nest boxes take a variety of shapes and forms, but the most common and popular these days are “racks of gourds”. Essentially, numerous plastic gourd-shaped cavities hang on spokes around a pole. This “rack of gourds” can then be raised and lowered with a pulley to do nest checks. “Purple Martin Landlords” monitor and maintain nest structures that the colonies rely on 100 percent. The survival of this species has hinged upon private citizens and conservation organizations establishing and maintaining these nest boxes. The Purple Martin Conservation Association (PMCA) is a non-profit citizen science organization with which many landlords are associated.

Unfortunately, there is concern that the aging-out of this population of landlords may threaten the long-term survival of the Purple Martin species. One study found that 90 percent of “landlords” in Texas and Oklahoma were older than 50, with most being in their 70’s. For the Purple Martin, a species that relies almost 100 percent on human nest structures for reproduction and survival … that is a little scary.

The first landlord I met this year here in Virginia was a retired physician, well into his 80’s. We had the fortune of meeting when two Purple Martins needed to be released. The first was an adult that came in with a broken wing. Against all odds – we were able to repair the wing and the patient was releasable. At the same time, we had a displaced fledgling that needed to be fostered in a colony. I packed up Purple Martin #1 and #2 and headed over to the landlord’s house.

I expected to stop by, drop the birds in a nest box, and head home. Instead, we sat on the back porch with the landlord and his wife for close to two hours, watching the birds come in and chatting about life and, of course, birds. He spoke of the colony with such pride, and was so knowledgeable. He knew exactly what time the martins would be coming in for the night, when they arrived in the spring, and when they started leaving in the fall. It was not the night I expected, but one of my favorite evenings of the summer.

The remaining notable 17 Purple Martins came in this year when their nest box was destroyed in a storm. We spoke with the martin landlords who brought them in. The landlords were aging; while they loved their martins, they were not planning or able to replace the nest box.

Luckily, these 17 martins could be fostered by another landlord, Anna, who has many martin gourds. Anna was the youngest of all the landlords I met this year. She has dedicated her backyard to habitat for birds of all kinds and had space for all 17 martins in her colony! We had to seek special permission from our state permitting agency to make this happen, but once it was approved, Anna came to pick up all 17 martins after just 24 hours in our care. Meeting Anna and hearing about her dedication to this species, and really all wildlife, gave me so much hope for the future of the martins.

These stories are perfect examples of how humans can help mitigate our impact on the environment by becoming stewards of this magnificent species. After this year, and learning so much about the culture surrounding Purple Martin stewardship, a rack of gourds is on my Christmas wish list. I was told it could take years for the gourds to become inhabited, but the prospect of being able to observe these aerial acrobats in my own backyard, while contributing to their survival, would be well worth the wait.

If you have the space, and the time, consider joining me in becoming part of the next generation of Purple Martin landlords. You can find more information about doing that at www.purplemartin.org.

P.S. The code we use for Purple Martin is PUMA (PUrple MArtin). As a teaching hospital, we have new people coming through all the time – you can imagine the looks you tell new students and volunteers it’s time to go feed the PUMA!

— Dr. Karra Pierce, Director of Veterinary Services

Check out all of our year-in-review posts!