Feeding Baby Purple Martins

Just about the time summer hits and baby martins are fledging, I get a lot of emails about young that have bailed out of their nests (called jumpers) because of either the heat or parasites (or for whatever other reason) and the landlord wants to feed and care for the young bird(s) until they are old enough to fly.

I would like to say that although the intent is good, I just want to make you aware that the probability of the young bird making it, is only about 50-50, so don't feel bad if it doesn't make it.  It is a big shock for them and they have to overcome that shock in order to live.  And, although we all have good intentions, feeding and caring for any kind of young, wild bird or animal is very difficult. They have a lot of needs to survive that we humans just don't know about.

Unlike wild creatures, we humans put an emotional factor into life (call Anthropomorphism) and it's these feelings we have for young 'cute' things that makes us want to see them survive. Therefore we try, with all good intentions I might add, to do our best to try and take care of them until they are old enough to make it on their own. What we don't realize is that the young often have to learn certain aspects of survival in order for them to make it through life, and these things are taught to the young by the parents and other adult birds around them.  They do have some instincts and know how to fly and probably even feed, but for the most part, they are babies just out of the martin house and have a lot to learn.

Regardless; you have this young bird and you want to see it survive.  Obviously, the baby is much too young to fly, so here are a couple of options to choose from to hopefully allow it to live a long life:


The first (and best) option is to return the bird to the nest.  If you don't know the exact nest it came out of, then what you have to do is find a nest that has young in it as close to the same age as possible as the one that jumped.  If you have a small colony, then this is easy, but if you have a fair sized colony, then it's a little harder, you might have to look around to find a good match.  No, don't worry about adding one more mouth for the adults to feed; they can handle it.


However; as you'll soon find out, once out of the nest, the young seldom stay and are soon right back on the ground, so here's option 2:


Now, I will add, the first 24-36 hours is the hardest for the young bird and if it makes it thru the first night or two, then there is a good chance it will make it to fledging.  Needless to say, keep it in a safe place.  DO NOT put it in direct sunlight and of course, keep family pets away (as well as very young children that might unintentionally harm it)..


First, you need to get a box about the size of a shoe box and then line it with some paper towels.  You'll see the reason for this soon after you put the bird(s) in it, so you might as well get a roll of them.  Replace often to keep the floor of the box clean.


Then, get a ruff wooden dowel about 1/2" - 3/4" in diameter.  A simple stick about that size will work fine as well.  Punch a hole just a little smaller than the dowel in the box from side to side and run it thru the box creating a perch inside the box.  Make sure it doesn't spin easily.  This gives the bird(s) something to sit on and at the same time, keeps them up off the dirty paper towel.  Now it may take them a day or two to get used to the perch, but if you place them on it enough times, they soon get to understand what it's for and will often jump up on it themselves after awhile.  They'll just sit there and either sleep after eating, like the one shown here, or just simply look around and watch what's going on.  They very quickly get used to human activity as you'll soon find out.





Next, you have to get some food such as fishing crickets or meal worms.  I prefer crickets because they're much easier to find.  If you go with crickets, get one of the little cricket tubes such as the one shown here; much easier to get the crickets out one at a time and they don't end up all over the house.  You can get one of these at the same place where you get crickets.  They're cheap and good to have around.  One bird will eat a lot of crickets, so be sure and get plenty enough.


Another note:  Feed the crickets, or they'll die on you.

Crickets actually eat cellulose, such as the gray cardboard style egg cartons that a dozen eggs come in, so cut a few small pieces and stick it in with the crickets to keep them alive.  No, they don't need water.  And besides, they won't be around long enough to worry about that.


Other folks have even been known to use scrambled eggs to feed the birds, but they're much harder to feed.  I much prefer crickets.


Now, at first, you'll need to set up a feeding schedule, about every hour or two will do to start.  This is about the same as what the adults would feed it during the day.


Start by getting a cricket from the tube.  Now, pick up the bird (NO, you don't need rubber gloves of any kind) and carefully pry the mouth open with a fingernail, (a trick in itself at first) and open the mouth far enough to be able to get the food over the tongue and push the cricket head first down the throat.  You have to push it far enough down the throat to initiate the swallowing reflex of the bird or else it'll just spit it back out.  Once you get it far enough, he/she will swallow the cricket.  1 or 2 crickets at each feeding will be plenty to start.  At first the bird is not going to want to eat because this is totally out of its norm.  Usually it's an adult bird that feeds it and your handling and feeding it is new to it so it'll take a little bit for it to get used to your handling and feeding it.

However; surprisingly within a short time, the baby will calm down, get used to you and the routine and soon learn what's going on and will actually open its mouth for you, especially if it knows a cricket is coming and its hungry.  Give it a few minutes to fully swallow the first one and then give it another.  At this point, it'll begin telling you when its hungry by opening its mouth so just give it a cricket or 2.  And don't overfeed them.  Make them ask for it.  (Trust me, they will...)


DO NOT give them water.  They'll get all the moisture they need from the crickets.  Giving them water will over hydrate them and that could kill them or make an even bigger mess in the box.


At night, one last feeding and then close up the box.  It doesn't have to be shut tight, just enough so the bird can't get out by accident and it's dark inside the box.  Just make sure that it has plenty of air.  The baby will then go to sleep.


And as you'll soon notice, the paper towels should be changed at least twice a day (or even more) to keep things clean inside the box.  The baby will sometimes jump down off the perch to sleep and you want to keep the floor as clean as possible so the baby doesn't get dirty.


In the morning, start all over again.  3 crickets can be given for the first morning feeding because their stomach's are empty from not getting food over night, but don't rush them.  Give them plenty of time to fully swallow each cricket, about 2 or 3 minutes between crickets.  If at this point they're asking for food, then they'll tell you when they've had enough.  (They just won't open their mouth for another cricket.)

Soon, they'll jump on the perch by themselves and then, like this one shown here, they'll eventually find their way to the highest point of the box and will be telling you when they're hungry.  Whenever you get close, it'll open its' mouth and all you have to do is give it a cricket or 2, no more having to force-feed it.  Now you can simply give it one whenever you walk by.

And YES, it will begin talking to you after awhile.  If so, then give it a cricket, or 2 or 3.  Before you know it, it'll be sitting just watching what's going on around it.  Purple martins are very curious birds.  And of course, it'll be wanting more crickets.  (Off to the bait shop for more crickets).


If you have younger children, (old enough to know what their doing) they will get a kick out of feeding 'the bird'.  Just keep an eye on them so that they don't try to overfeed it.  (Overfeeding could kill it.)


NOW, if you happen to get the bird to fledging age, and this means fully feathered with wings that nearly equal the length of the tail, it will begin flapping its wings.  At first it isn't really trying to go anywhere, just practicing wing flapping.  But eventually, it will take off and around the house it will go.  (Definitely keep the family cats and dogs away at this time).  It will make more and more of these flights so just be prepared for them.  Soon, the flights will be more extensive and it will circle the room a number of times.




Take it outside, simply hold it on your finger and slowly work your way over to the martin colony.  The best time to do this is in the morning when other martins are flying around  Give it a few minutes to get used to 'outside'.  It'll watch everything that's going on out there and of course, see the other martins.  If it doesn't go on its own, say in 4 or 5 minutes, then toss it.  If it doesn't fly and lands on the ground, then it isn't ready to go yet, so go get it and it's back to the box for another day or two.


Repeat in a couple of days.  Just make sure that it is fully ready to fly, otherwise...

Once it takes off, other adult martins will chase it and MAKE it want to fly.  (How they know it's a new fledging, I don't know, but they do...)


And that's all there is to it.  Once it takes flight, you've successfully saved a baby martin that would have otherwise perished, because a baby martin on the ground is not good for the baby.  They'll usually find some out of the way place to hide and get out of the sun and of course, eventually die from not being fed or some kind of predator gets it.  Unfortunately, a lot of baby martins die like this and the landlord has no idea because they hide so well.


And I will say that it actually feels good when you take it outside and it flies away to join the other martins in the sky.  Watch it as long as you can, because you'll probably never see it again...at least not this year.  But then again, just maybe it'll be back next year...


Anyways; Good Luck!