Wichita’s purple martin show uncertain

For several years Kansans gathered at a parking lot south of Via Christi St. Francis, to marvel at up to about 50,000 purple martins that gathered in a communal roost just east of the hospital. Many families of several generations gathered for the last hour of daylight show, and several friendships were made between wildlife watchers who repeatedly found each other at the event.

The popular little insect-eaters gather in such locations in several sizable cities shortly after most of their young are fledged, before making August migrational runs towards wintering areas in South America.

A tiny percentage of the purple martins that roosted in a line of trees at Via Christi St. Francis the past few years. The roosting area has been altered, and the birds are looking for an alternative site.

I know people came from at least 70 miles to see the show. Many couples had made it an annual event to have a fun dinner in Old Town, then catch the purple martins on their way home. Many brought lawn chairs and picnic dinners, too.

But things have changed, as they often do when wildlife is involved. The line of trees at the edge of the seldom used evening parking lot have had a sizable manicure. A hospital source said it was done to remove branches damaged in wind storm, and to remove others for the health and beauty of the trees. With only about half as much foliage as in the past, this summer the purple martins are trying to form a communal roost just west of Via Christi. Some of the trees are in a crowded parking lot and some over an entrance often used by employees. Fearing disease could come in via bird poo tracked in from the parking lot, Via Christi staff has been trying to spook the birds from the new roosting area.

So far, the purple martins don’t seem to want to leave. The species that nests almost entirely in man-made structures also finds comfort in well-lit areas with dense trees that offer protection from predators. Via Christi has the best of both in the area.

Hopefully the birds will settle into a roosting area with less human activity, and one where the public can again enjoy the great show.