Purple martin colony thrives at Mark's Harness Shop

·5 min read

Tucked away on big bird houses mounted on poles behind Mark's Harness Shop near Springs is a thriving family of purple martins sailing through the air continually and having nestlings galore this time of year.

The well-known and longstanding Amish shop at 1089 Springs Road is filled with leather products and agricultural items, bringing in customers from all over the tri-state area. For the purple martin birds, however, the shop signifies their summer home where they return to every spring.

Mark Brenneman and his wife, Elizabeth, have found great joy in caring for this passerine bird in the swallow family. They have erected four houses and one gourd on poles behind the shop, which is also next to their home. But, the caring doesn't stop there. They clean and fill their nests with shavings in the spring in preparation for their arrival and then they carefully take the hatchlings out and clean the nests again in June to protect them from insects and mites.

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According to Wikipedia, the purple martin is actually more blackish-blue with feathers that have an iridescent sheen caused by the refraction of incident light giving them a bright blue to navy blue or deep purple appearance. They winter in Brazil, Bolivia and parts of Peru, migrating to North America in the spring to breed, says Wikipedia.

"No one can tell me there is no God when you look at and think about the purple martin," said Mark Brenneman, who is semi-retired from his business Mark's Harness Shop that he sold to his grandson, Cephas Fisher, a few years ago. "What is amazing to me is that they fly the whole way to Brazil and back and they know exactly how to get back home without a map."

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Purple martins are well known for making their nests in artificial houses. There is even a purple martin house on the upper diamond in Somerset. And purple martins become almost entirely dependent on these types of structures, especially in the east and even within cities and towns, according to Wikipedia. They are usually absent from areas where no nest sites are provided and often having a nearby colony within the general area helps to attract a new family. It is often the fledglings from last year that scout out a new site and a new colony gradually begins in a new location from there.

"They like to be around people," says Elizabeth Brenneman, Mark's wife who helps him change out the nests with new shavings and leaves and keeps a tally of how many babies are in each nest.

Mark Brenneman explained that it all started about eight years ago when they decided to purchase a purple martin gourd and place it on a pole in the back area of the shop.

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"I'm not sure where they started from originally but there are other colonies in the area," he said. "Every year after we put up the gourd, we added another house. We started out with one and we never dreamed we would have four houses and one gourd and have this big of a colony of birds. It is a beautiful site to see them in the summer and people who stop by the shop look out the windows and watch them."

Brenneman calculates that there are over 100 birds who faithfully make their nests in the structures. He had 57 active nests this summer. Each house contains 14 nests and the gourd has four altogether, making a total of 60 spots so there were only three nests untaken this year.

"We are planning to add more gourds onto the houses next year because the city is getting full," he laughed.

The Brennemans purchased their structures from Troyer's Birds Paradise in Conneautville in Crawford County and they can order the same type of structures at Mark's Harness Shop for customers who are interested in starting their own colonies.

But, while the purple martin houses with all the shimmery birds flying around look appealing, there is work involved in keeping a good colony in order. The Brennemans have to clean the nests every spring and then put in shavings and apple leaves for when the birds arrive. Then, what is so interesting about this project is that they clean the nests again after the hatchlings arrive and before they are big enough to fly or escape from the nest.

This is essential for their survival because new material in the nests keep the bugs and mites at bay and allow the babies to grow healthy. And, sometimes a baby doesn't survive in the nest and it needs to be removed.

"The Martins are amazing to me because they never scold me when I get into their nests and take their babies out," says Mark. "I can handle their babies and they have no problem with it."

Both Mark and his wife Elizabeth work as a team when the hatchlings are about a week old. Mark opens the nests and takes the babies carefully out and lays each one in a basket while he takes out their old nests and makes a new one with shavings and grape and apple leaves. Then, he puts the hatchlings back in — one at a time. While he takes care of the nests, wife Elizabeth does the paperwork and keeps a tally of babies and active nests.

"We do this because we enjoy it," said Mark Brenneman. "It is not a task or a bother. We enjoy cleaning the nests so the babies can thrive this time of year and we enjoy watching the hatchlings fly with their families in the air. It is something we look forward to when spring arrives and all summer long until they leave sometime in August."

This article originally appeared on The Daily American: Purple martin colony sets up shop in Somerset County