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Professor Bridget Stutchbury on return of purple martins to Toronto's High Park

Professor Bridget Stutchbury on return of purple martins to Toronto's High Park

After an eight-year absence, North America’s largest swallow has returned to High Park, wrote the Toronto Star June 7. An excerpt of the complete article follows:

Two pairs of purple martins, known for the purple-black feathers of mature males, are cohabiting in a colony house on the south edge of Grenadier Pond.

The birds are rare in southern Ontario, where populations have decreased by 46 per cent in the last 20 years. They feed on flying insects, and even one period of cold wet weather, when insects don’t fly, can lead to adult starvation in large numbers, says Bridget Stutchbury, Distinguished Research Professor in Biology in York's Faculty of Science & Engineering, who studies North American songbirds and did her thesis on purple martins.

Stutchbury says it’s rare for the species to move into a new colony house because they usually return to one where they’ve previously nested and prefer to live with other pairs. The social nature of the bird could mean that more pairs will move into High Park. “The idea that they’d be able to repopulate, I think it’s exciting,” she says.

Although the creatures are admired for many reasons, there is one misconception about the species, says Stutchbury. The belief that martins have a voracious appetite for mosquitoes is a myth. “They might snatch the odd mosquito, but they’d much rather eat a nice juicy dragonfly,” she says. They also favour moths and butterflies. “Some people might think that they’re good insect control, but they’re mostly eating the kind of insects we might admire.”

Stutchbury, a Canada Research Chair in  Ecology and Conservation Biology and a professor in the Department of Biology in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, is the author of The Bird Detective. It describes her journeys through forests and jungles studying the sexual antics and social lives of birds, and details the science behind their surprisingly sophisticated and often amusing behavior. The book, published by HarperCollins April 16, also explains how understanding birds’ behaviour will help to conserve increasingly-threatened species.

Posted by Elizabeth Monier-Williams, research communications officer, with files courtesy of YFile– York University’s daily e-bulletin.