Published May 13, 2012, 12:00 AM

VIDEO: The purple martin man: Grand Forks man puts his passion to work for a cause

Like a relatively small but devoted cadre of other purple martin landlords across North America, Perry Vogel of Grand Forks is doing his part to make sure these largest members of the swallow family have a future.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

Perry Vogel would be the “Purple Martin Man of Grand Forks” if such a title existed.

Vogel, you see, is a purple martin landlord. The backyard of his south Grand Forks home hosts a colony that has sheltered as many as 29 purple martin pairs.

The collection of white, gourd-shaped houses and a stately homemade high-rise with eight martin-sized units teems with life every spring. This time of year, the martins in Vogel’s colony show up before dusk like clockwork after daytime insect-feeding forays.

“They’re incredible insectivores — they’ll eat anything big and ugly that flies,” Vogel said. “They sing to you, and they’re just a joy to have in your backyard. I couldn’t quite imagine what the backyard would be like if I didn’t have them in the summer because there’s just a life they bring that no other bird brings to your backyard.”

Like a relatively small but devoted cadre of other purple martin landlords across North America, Vogel, 39, is doing his part to make sure these largest members of the swallow family have a future.

Call it a passion, he says — a passion with a purpose.

Vogel says purple martins, named for their iridescent purple sheen, have been declining in the northern Midwest since the 1960s, based on findings from the annual North American Breeding Bird Survey. A big reason, he said, is the increasing population of European starlings and house sparrows, non-native species that compete with martins for the cavities, or hollowed-out places, the birds need to nest.

Without human help, the starlings and sparrows usually win.

“They’re aggressive,” Vogel said. “They’re ruthless.”

History with humans

According to Vogel, purple martins and humans have a partnership that dates back to when American Indians hung hollowed-out gourds from trees or posts. Naturally curious, the martins were attracted to the gourds and used them to build their nests.

In return, the martins kept populations of flying insects in check and chased crows from the meat the Indians would hang to dry.

Today, gourd-shaped houses are a staple of purple martin colonies along with more traditional homemade nest boxes. Vogel says martins east of the Rockies now are totally dependent on humans for housing.

“If it weren’t for humans, there wouldn’t be martins” today, Vogel said. “Purple martins like to be near humans because they have evolved that way. We have this opportunity to put up a house, attract a few birds to our backyards and make a difference.”

Vogel said there’s more to being a good martin landlord than putting up a few houses. The birds are naturally attracted to white, and a house of any other color probably won’t draw martins. It’s also important, he said, to place the colony in an open area away from trees that harbor predators such as owls and Cooper’s hawks.

“Being a purple martin landlord is like being a real estate agent,” Vogel said — “location, location, location.”

In the 1960s, Vogel said, a company selling purple martin houses spread a myth that the birds ate up to 2,000 mosquitoes a day. The marketing gimmick was good for sales, Vogel said, but it didn’t do martins any good because well-meaning people who didn’t know any better often attracted starlings and house sparrows, instead.

To manage for house sparrows, Vogel sets box traps in his backyard and kills 80 to 100 of the martin-tormenting birds annually. His martin houses have crescent-shaped openings that are too small for the starlings.

Vogel also conducts weekly nest checks on the houses, which raise and lower with a pulley system, counting the eggs and babies and making sure nothing is in the nest that shouldn’t be there.

“It’s a lot of work, but it doesn’t really feel like work to me,” he said.

Way of life

A native of Kulm, N.D., Vogel said purple martins have always been a way of life. His grandmother and father both had purple martin colonies, so when Vogel and his wife, Sheryl, moved to their south Grand Forks home in 2001, putting up purple martin houses just came natural.

He started with four birds that first year, and the colony grew from there. The martins, which winter in Brazil, are programmed to return to the site where they hatched.

Vogel’s martin colony since 2001 has fledged more than 600 offspring, including 109 last year.

Vogel’s efforts on behalf of the purple martin extend beyond his backyard. Last winter, he co-founded the Purple Martin Association of the Dakotas — a loosely knit group of enthusiasts in the two states — and on Earth Day, April 22, Vogel set up a purple martin house in the Grand Forks Greenway.

He’s also working with staff at Turtle River State Park to draw purple martins to a colony at the state park west of Grand Forks.

This year, Vogel reduced his backyard colony from 29 martin units to 14 in hopes of attracting birds to the Greenway. It’s working; the first martins began visiting the Greenway house just this week.

“It’s going to be an excellent spot for purple martins,” he said. “I’m thrilled we’re going to be bringing purple martins to the Greenway.”

Partners for a cause

Vogel this spring also partnered with the Agassiz Audubon Society based in Warren, Minn., to secure a grant to offset costs for the 14-unit purple martin house in the Greenway and a similar structure at the Agassiz Valley Water Resources Project impoundment, located southeast of Warren.

Last weekend, Vogel and several boy scouts erected the martin house near Warren during an annual Boy Scout Camporee, held at the Audubon Center of the Red River Valley across the road from the impoundment.

Heidi Hughes, manager of the Audubon Center, said the collaboration with Vogel has been a “perfect partnership.”

“He’s just a wonderful personality,” she said. “He’s fun to listen to, and with those boy scouts, he was just amazing. I learned a lot from him, too.”

The two martin enthusiasts will present workshops at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the East Grand Forks Campbell Library and at 6:30 p.m. May 21 in the Thief River Falls Library. The goal is to help interested people become good purple martin landlords.

“It’s one bird where an individual person can make a big impact on the population,” Hughes said. “Martins really need people’s help, and you can immediately see the results of your work. You see a huge decline in flying insects, biting insects and flies, so they’re really good to have around in terms of comfort.”

The only downside, Vogel said, is when the martins leave in late August.

“After they are gone, the yard is quiet,” he said. “There’s no singing.”

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send email to