KENNEBUNK — Joe McGovern is decidedly not a birder. But when you ask why he built a nesting house for purple martins on his property, he responds with a quizzical look as if the reason is obvious.

“There was an article in the newspaper that said they ate their weight in mosquitoes every day,” he said. “That was all I needed to hear.

“I sent in for the plans, and a friend and I built a house. And those birds started coming. They’ve been coming every year since. I love to see them arrive and I hate to see them go. But that’s as far as I go with birding.”

The purple martin house on McGovern’s property beside the Kennebunk River has attracted a dozen mating pairs of purple martins for the past 25 years.

And it plays a vital role. Purple martins have been in decline in North America for the past half-century, according to the Purple Martin Conservation Association. Maine has seen a 5 percent annual loss in the purple martin population since 1960.

“It’s pretty much dropped off a cliff and is basically down to nothing in a lot of New England states,” said Joe Siegrist, president of the association.

The species has struggled because of the loss of old-growth forests, where the birds prefer to nest, and with the rise in the numbers of English house sparrows and European starlings, invasive species that compete with martins for (and often win) nesting sites.

“The end result is the only purple martins that nest east of the Rockies do so in human housing. That’s why they exist. They’re an important part of our ecosystem because they eat billions of insects.”

It’s a scene bird enthusiasts in Kennebunk are trying to recreate: A North American purple martin feeding her young from the balcony of a bird house. Associated Press file/Orlin Wagner

McGovern’s purple martin colony is one of just five known to exist in Maine, with those in Denmark, Unity, Belgrade and Corinna. But now a group of birders at York County Audubon hopes to stem the decline in the purple martin population.

Earlier this month, members of the Audubon chapter, with help from the Kennebunk Land Trust, put up a purple martin house across a marsh a few thousand yards from the one on McGovern’s property, to try to lure young purple martins to nest nearby.

A metal tower was erected off the land trust’s Madelyn Marx Preserve off Route 9. Six plastic cone-shaped “gourds,” purchased from the Purple Martin Association, have been strung up like flags on a flagpole. The gourds – so-called because Native Americans used to hang gourds to attract purple martins – have a small entry for the birds as well as a removable door to allow people to clean them to minimize the spread of disease.

The tower was placed a few hundred yards from the land trust’s trail, but far enough out in the marsh to give the birds plenty of room to fly. Martins need to nest in wide-open spaces to fly and feed on insects, not because the birds are wary of people.

“The interesting thing about purple martins, they’ve gotten so used to living near humans, they do habituate to people,” said Gordon Colllins, the executive director of the land trust.

The new martin house is tough to see from the land trust trail with the naked eye, but not with binoculars.

Similar efforts in the past five years by birders in New Hampshire and Maine have had success spreading colonies.

Members of York County Audubon and Kennebunk Land Trust erect purple martin housing on a marsh in Kennebunk. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

In 2014 a group of birders with New Hampshire Audubon discovered a purple martin colony in Seabrook, New Hampshire, and put up houses nearby, adding martin houses in Hampton and Rye, New Hampshire, with good success.

Dennis Skillman of Seabrook, New Hampshire, said the new colonies only make up about a half-dozen in the state. But all the new sites already have nesting colonies.

“With the success last year we are expanding the Seabrook site from 12 to 18 gourds and the Hampton site from six to 12 gourds, and in Rye from six to 12,” he said.

Back in Maine, another colony in Belgrade is in a house on private property that purple martins have visited “as long as anyone can remember,” said bird biologist Derek Lovitch.

Four years ago, birders there put up a new stand with gourds on private property with the help of donations. Gourd houses also were added at the public library. Lovitch, who led the project, said the colony is now approaching full capacity.

Pat Moynahan of York County Audubon said if a colony is established at the new purple martin house in Kennebunk, the chapter will add six more gourds. They also may place another pole closer to Route 9, about a half-mile away, so birders and the public will be able to get a good look at the rare bird.

“If we establish this one, it will be easier to enrich one by the road from this colony, if we have success,” Moynahan said. “We should know by the end of May if they’re nesting.”

Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or at:

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Twitter: FlemingPph

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