Archive for August, 2009

Blowfly Mystery Update

Monday, August 31st, 2009

In a recent post I wrote about a strange case of apparent Blowfly infestations in ADULT purple martins. You can read about it HERE.

The latest issue of “Feathers and Friends” had an interesting interview with Willie Conley, a well known and prominent  purple martin landlord in Indiana. Some excerpts of the article follow:

“Willie… hosts around 250 pairs annually. This year he had 251 pair. …He first had this problem with this parasitic infestation back in 2004 already, but this year was exceptionally bad. This year Willie treated around 70 martins in his own colony that were infested, and they all survived. Though he did find 2 untreated martins that had died of the sickness.

An infested martin starts growing a big pink bubble right at its under tail coverts. In this bubble there are tiny little holes in which there are up to four white little white maggots per hole. Usually just two. Willie has found as many as 23 maggots in ONE martin. These maggots grow bigger and bigger until the martin dies.

Willie saved a dead martin that died of this parasitic infestation to see what the maggots would do. He put the (dead) martin in a sealed jar. The maggots turned into white pupal cases (cocoons) , which later turned to a dark brownish color.”

courtesy of Feathers and Friends

After a couple of weeks this is what had emerged.

(The house fly on the left is for size reference)

According to Dr.Terry L. Whitworth, Owner and Operator, Whitworth Pest Solutions, Inc., and Washington State University Adjunct Professor in Entomology; these photos are Sarcophagidae -flesh flies. They normally only feed on dead nestlings, though occasionally they can infest living tissue, usually via a wound or injury.

Dr.Whitworth brings up an important point though. That since these maggots were from a bird that was found dead that these flesh flies could have deposited the larvae on the dead bird and not necessarily have been the cause of death. Really the only way to be sure is to examine the larvae that are directly removed from the living bird.

So we are left with more questions and still have a mystery. If you have any information that may help us is solving the riddle, please let us know. You can contact us at susan(at)purplemartins-r-us(dot)com or use the contact us page to the right.

The American Bird Conservation Association / Feathers and Friends can be contacted via phone at (260) 768-8095 x:5 Subscription rates are  $18 for 1 year. Tell them Susan from PurpleMartins-R-Us sent you!

ScareCrow Joe

Friday, August 28th, 2009

When I first saw this photo, it took me a moment to realize that it was not a real person. I guess my thought about scarecrows is the old fashioned Wizard of Oz type. Up in the middle of the field (or yard) with a stick up its backside with arms stretched out to the sides and crows laughing as they feast on corn.

But when it comes to purple martins, scarecrows are quite handy and when I looked at this one posted by Ray Gingerich, a fellow PMCA forumite, I said, “Now THAT’S a scarecrow!”

Ray describes his use of his scarecrow:

“As an experiment I put this fellow on duty all summer (24 hour duty and not one complaint from him). He didn’t have much affect on sparrows but seemed to have some affect on starlings and hawks. I had a few starlings this spring before placing Joe on duty but none afterwards, when I placed him near my barn and partially hidden from the sky I had a few low fly bys from hawks, if I placed him out in the open near the bird houses the hawks seemed to pass by at a greater distance. I kept moving him to different locations in my yard and repositioning his arms & legs.
Couldn’t get keep him awake though, wonder if the sparrows could tell.”

Maybe we should all give Scarecrow Joe a try!

Where Did Purple Martins Get The Name “Martin”

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

Today someone on the PMCA forum asked an interesting question that I thought some of you might find interesting.

How Did Martins Get Named Martins? I know there are other martin species, but does anyone know the origin of the name?

So I share…

“The term MARTIN is a proper name in French and derives from the the Latin “Mars,” the Roman God of War. The diminutive “ten” or “tin” is a pet name, leading to speculation that “little mars” refers to the first month of the yearly calendar-the warring season, when first so-called scouts arrive in the US.”
from The Purple Martin by Robin Doughty and Rob Fergus

On a personal note, I like to think of them as being quite “war-like” when they spot an intruder.

Off Topic: Baby Gouldians 1 Week Old!

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

Just wanted to update you with a photo of one of the baby Lady Gouldian finches that I am hand raising.

Ugly, isn’t it? Wait about 5 months though. You won’t believe the change!

Off Topic: My Baby Gouldian Finches

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

COMPLETELY off the subject but I had to share. In the last year I decided to get back into an old hobby of mine. I used to be a hobby breeder of finches. Silverbills, bronze wing mannikins, java rice and of course the prized Lady Gouldian finches.

Gouldians are so spectacularly colored that they almost come across as gawdy. But they are sweet and calm as far as finches go and don’t flutter about in a panic as some birds do. They often come up the the cage bars and get close to me to look carefully at my face as I talk to them.

Unfortunately the pair that lays fertile eggs is continuing to toss out freshly hatched young and I can’t seem to just watch nature take its course. So for the 3rd time I am “trying” to hand feed 2 baby finches. I estimate their chances at slim to none but I still persevere in feeding them about every hour.

Notice the distinctive marks on the mouth. These help the parents to locate the beaks in a dark nest.

They are so ugly they are cute. The little chirps they are starting to make, breaks my heart.

In this pic it is one day old and as of today they are 4 days old.

Halfway to Purple Martin Season for 2010!

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

Well, only half a year till purple martin season. I am already looking forward to it.

For those of you that are not familiar with this blog, I stay pretty active on the blog by writing about purple martin and birding related topics. This year I also will be doing some product reviews. I will be pointing out some of the finer details of some of the purple martin bird houses, gourd racks and other items. Hopefully some of these reviews may help you decide what kind of purple martin house you will be getting.

If anyone has any product review requests please email them to me and I will put them on the top of the list.

Whatever you do, just because our martins have migrated don’t forget to check up on us every week or so for updates and great info. Since the purple martins are gone, things are slower and we will be adding more items to our online store So stay in touch!

Cleaning Your Purple Martin Housing

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

Birds are migrating southward to Brazil fast and furious. Even the upward reaches of the purple martins nesting areas in Canada are giving final nesting results. Mentions of premigratory roosts dominate the purple martin forums. All there is left to do is clean up all the housing and gourds and put them away till next year.

Undeniably the least favorite part of being a purple martin landlord. As for me, cleaning out the housing seems to go a bit easier if you wait for a day without any breeze after a stretch of hot dry days. That way there is no wind to blast you in the face with all the feather dander and bug parts that are stirred up when cleaning out nests.

My housing has been lowered and sits patiently waiting for me to address the issue. Thank goodness that all my gourds are relatively easy to clean. I can’t imagine the days prior to access ports and removable nest trays.

How do I clean the nests out? The previous blog post about blowflies has the video on how to do nest changes and that is pretty much the essence of it. I use a grocery store plastic bag and reach in the port (with my hand in the bag)  and grab as much nest material as possible then simply turn the bag inside out to keep all the nastiness from floating about and from touching me. Works like a charm and gives you a way to reuse those pesky bags that would be thrown away after bring the groceries home.

Of course, IF you have a compost pile the nest material would make a nice addition to your mix.

After the gourds or house is empty a blast with a garden house works well. Some folks even use a pressure washer and for plastic gourds this works great. I would stay away from the pressure cleaner on wood houses and personally I would stay away from water in general as wood houses are usually not painted on the inside.

Once the majority of the detritus (or nasty funk) is removed the gourds and houses can be disinfected and for that a mild bleach solution (5% to 10%) works well. Any stronger and the plastics may discolor as well as your lawn! But a spray bottle to generously douse the interior surfaces or an old rag can be used. Alternatively you can fill a large bucket with your solution and dip your gourds in it. Once the bleach solution has had a few minutes to kill off any pest stragglers then the housing can be dried off (to prevent any rusting, warping or rot) and then all holes should be sealed.

Closing the doors off is a must but often overlooked is closing the vents also. Call me crazy but I like to use those same grocery bags to place over my troyer gourds to keep any wasps and or bees from entering the drainage or vent holes and giving me a fright the next time I open the gourds up. Houses can be placed in larger garbage bags and the Trendsetter purple martin houses has custom house covers that work great for this.

To store or not to store depends on you. If you, like me, live in a hurricane prone area then chances are you will want to take the housing into a safe place for the off season. Some folks may leave it up and out all year. It is a personal choice. Part of my mania in cleaning the housing is not so much to give the purple martins a sterile nest when they return next year (which isn’t even possible) but more to assure that any creepy crawly parasites won’t decide to crawl out of the housing into my garage and be that much closer to me and my family.

And I almost forgot one important ingredient to cleaning purple martin houses…a wine cooler and some soothing music!


Blog/Photos & Video Copyrighted 2009: S.Halpin /

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Blow Fly Infestations- What a BOT it?

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

I thought being in the South that I was safe from Blow Flies (Protocalliphora sialia) but alas after talking to a few folks and doing some research I am sure I have experienced a more sinister type of Blow Fly here at my colony.

A few weeks ago I posted about a nestling that had some sort of “lump” or cyst on its abdomen. The nestling died soon thereafter. Since then I have been doing a little digging into what it actually was. When I found the dead nestling it was quite apparent that the mass had opened and since I saw no other injuries or obvious issues with the nestling, that very well may be what killed the bird.

This led me on a quest to find out what may have been the cause.  At first I thought they were Bot Flies. What is a Bot fly? Well, in short it is an insect that’s larvae lives as a parasite within the tissues of a living organism. Horses commonly get them as do other mammals. I have since come to learn that there is a type of subcutaneous BlowFly (Trypocalliphora braueri) or a type of Housefly (Philornis sp) that may be to blame.

I realized it wasn’t just me when I was reading my latest issue of “Feathers and Friends” (a magazine published by “The American Bird Conservation Association”) I read about several landlords reporting birds with “bubbles” that are “caused by an insect that laid eggs there and the eggs hatch into little worms” When I read this, It sure sounded like a BotFly.

I spoke with Mr.Terry Whitworth, PhD, who is the Adjunct Professor of Entomology for Washington State University. A portion of his email to me was as follows, ” There are two possible culprits in Florida, one is Trypocalliphora braueri, a subcutaneous blow fly. The other is Philornis, a Muscidae (a type of house fly) that occurs in Florida. By the time the larva comes to the surface where the bump can be seen the damage is done. Removing it or killing it at that point will not change things much for the nestlings. Neither pest is always lethal, it depends on the number of larvae that develop and where they burrow. I once took 25 mature Trypocalliphora larvae off a nestling junco and it survived long enough to fledge.”

Whether they be Blowflies, Houseflies or Botflies, whatever you call them, these nasty bugs can kill! Though not the same bug they are somewhat related. Some infest by way of laying their eggs or larvae into living tissue. Others crawl up through the nests and suck blood only to drop into the nest to grow then repeat the process. Getting larger and needing more blood each time. Usually a “Northern” plight, Blow flies can be controlled via nest changes as Sevin has NO affect on the larvae. A pair of forceps or tweezers can be used to pull these nasty things off of the nestlings. Once the Blowfly larvae are done feeding and growing in larval stages they form a pupal case in which they remain, dormant, until they are ready to emerge as an adult. Something like a caterpillar forming a cocoon before it emerges as a butterfly.

The typical BlowFly, can exsanguinate a nestling when present in large enough numbers but if caught early are controllable. These other guys (Philornis, Trypocalliphora and Botflies) however spell bigger trouble.

You think I am dreaming this all up? Read this article by The University of Northern British Columbia. (Be warned, if you don’t like bug pictures…don’t click) Basically it explains how death can result several ways. The Bot larvae move around and migrate in the soft tissue and can kill the bird, the wound itself can become infected and kill the bird, the Bot larvae will feed on the tissue and weaken the bird to the point of death, the Bot can damage the wings and thus, “produce an obvious awkwardness in locomotion, which may render them more susceptible to predation.” (that is a direct quote) In short the damage is severe and serious.

And talk about BiZzArRe? There is even a species of Bot Fly that lays its eggs on mosquitoes.When the mosquito bites the eggs are transferred. What does that mean? That means look out! Humans can get it too! Still don’t believe me? Just Google it. But that is another story.

What can be done about these subcutaneous (under the skin) Flies? Unfortunately, nest changes may not be helpful as once the adult Fly lays the eggs/larvae they crawl onto the bird and burrow into the skin. Another options is pretty gruesome and may not be legal. Also, it may cause more problems than it solves. Now, I could explain how the skin is cleaned with an antiseptic such as betadine prior to making a small incision from which the Bot Larvae is removed with a pair of forceps or tweezers but I wouldn’t want anyone with paranoia cutting holes in a purple martin with a wart. And legally, I think I could get in trouble for telling people to perform surgery on a federally protected bird without some sort of Veterinary license. All of this may be a mute point as once the larvae are large enough to cause the visible lump, the damage to the birds soft tissue is done. As puts it, “They develop under the skin of some birds.The bird has died after…maggots have consumed much of its muscle tissues. Once their host is dead, the larvae leave it to pupate…”

In humans, the true Bot Fly wound (which is open so the larvae can breathe) could be covered with petroleum jelly or some other occlusive salve so that the larvae will emerge on its own, seeking air to breathe, after a day or so. I think that on a bird this course of treatment would not be successful. How could you place a dressing on a bird? We have the issue of a pretty dirty living environment (a nest) talk about infection!  So, basically the wisest course of action would be to take the bird to a wildlife rehabber.

Of course we also have the problem of not really being sure which one of these 3 flies is the true culprit. Perhaps it is a combination of the 3, maybe some other. In order to find the true source of this problem I urge all that may witness this to photograph any lumps you may see on your nestlings and monitor them. Of course you can email them to me at the “Contact Us” section.

It is important to stress that with the classic and somewhat common Blow Fly infestations, that nest changes are by far the easiest and best treatment. Elevated subfloors help and nest trays make cleaning your purple martin bird houses super easy. Pulling off any Blow Fly larvae that are latched on to the nestlings with tweezers. For those of you that have questions regarding nest changes, this short video may help you overcome any trepidations that you may have.


If you want to learn more about Blow Flies or help with blowfly research go to for some interesting facts.

The American Bird Conservation Association / Feathers and Friends can be contacted via phone at (260) 768-8095 x:5 Subscription rates are  $18 for 1 year. Tell them Susan from PurpleMartins-R-Us sent you!

©2009 S.Halpin /