WESTPORT, Conn. – For the past four years, the state has been banding and tracking its purple martin population. On Thursday, the colony of the threatened birds at Westport's Sherwood Island State Park was tagged by state biologists, wildlife experts and volunteers.
The purple martin has been on the state's threatened bird watch list for the last several years, said Geoffrey Krukar, an avian researcher with the Wildlife Division of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
“As far as we knew, we were down to four to five colonies in the state,” Krukar said. Now, thanks to the banding efforts over the last four years, they know of 40 to 45 colonies across the state.
Part of the problem in maintaining the population is that the purple martins have no natural habitats east of the Mississippi River -- the birds are cliff dwellers. That means humans need to make habitats for them, as was done for the colony at Sherwood Island. But they are picky birds, said Laurie Fortin, a biologist with the Wildlife Division.
Each purple martin bird gets both a state and federal metal ring around their legs, Krukar said. The federal band is silver and the state band varies in color depending on the location of the colony, he said. The colony in Westport was banded with a metallic red.
“It’s almost like a Social Security number for each bird,” Krukar said. Each bird gets a separate and unique number that is loaded into a federal database so wildlife experts and bird watchers can later find out where the bird was banded.
It also helps in learning where the birds go to nest after they return from migration as juveniles.
“We’re tracking their movements,” said Fortin. “We’re seeing some birds move into other sites,” and not returning to their birthplace.
The birds banded Thursday were 10 to 20 days old, which is the ideal time, Krukar said. Their legs are skinny, and the birds aren’t quite ready to fly, which makes it easy for handlers to hold the fledglings without hurting them.
For 7-year-old Flora Cunha, of Bridgeport, it was exciting to be able to hold the baby birds. The volunteers recruited Flora to hold the birds once they had been banded and take them to the next stage, where they are aged and weighed before being placed back in their nests.
“I heard about the event and I thought my daughter would enjoy it,” said Tamar Cunha, a Greens Farms Academy science teacher. They arrived and began helping with the birds right away.
The group banded about 100 baby birds in just over two hours, as dozens of people came by to help.