A New Home for Our Purple Martins

BC’s population of Western Purple Martins (PUMAs) experienced a drastic collapse in the 1980’s due to habitat loss and displacement by introduced species. Since 2015, the Squamish Environment Society (SES) has been trying to support the PUMA population by installing and maintaining nesting boxes mounted on marine pilings in the Central Channel of the Squamish Estuary. The colony has grown larger every year.

Late last summer, we became aware that the pilings were potentially to be removed as part of a land tenure closure. With that in mind, and not wanting to leave our returning PUMAs homeless, we got to work under the leadership of John Buchanan to develop a relocation plan. We received a permit to build one structure on land, and we hoped that this new structure would help the PUMAs make the transition to the new site. We removed half the boxes mounted on pilings and left the remainder for the returning PUMAs this spring. By May 29 , we already had at least 18 PUMAs at the old nesting site and we knew we needed to complete and install the new structure before the last birds returned and nesting behaviour started.

On June 4, a team of about 15 people came out to help John realize his vision and plan for the new nest box structure. For three hours, the team worked tirelessly getting the components from the road to the site and then assembling them. All went smoothly thanks to John’s meticulous planning.  Global sent a TV crew to film the work and interviewed John for the Vancouver evening news.

We are grateful to several parties for assisting us, especially considering the tight timeline. Bruce Cousens, our PUMA expert (senior program biologist with the Georgia Basin Ecological Assessment and Restoration Society) provided technical expertise. The South Coast Conservation Land Management Program and the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation)  helped us develop an ecologically mindful plan which furthered our application for an installation permit from the Ministry of Water, Land and Resource StewardshipSeaspan Shipyards allowed us to source some scrap from their yard for the structure build and donated funds for the remaining materials required for the project.

This project would not have been possible without our highly-skilled and brilliant friend and club member, John Buchanan, who designed and pre-fabricated the new structure. Everything about it was designed to limit its environmental impact, to be welcoming to the PUMAs, and to help make it safer and easier for the community to monitor and engage with these remarkable birds.

Central to the structure is a sign designed by Aaron Nelson-Moody, a well-known Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw carver. The design depicts dragonflies,  an important food source for the PUMAs.

John and several other birders visited the new site the next morning and were surprised and elated to see that a PUMA pair had already moved into one of the boxes. Here’s a video that John took of the newest community members.

We will monitor the nest boxes at both sites this season. If all goes well, we hope to obtain a permit to install a second structure so we can relocate the rest of the boxes before the 2024 nesting season.

If you’re interested in participating in PUMA citizen-science, please reach out to our project coordinator Tiffany.

Banner photo: John Buchanan and Davina Dube installing nest boxes on the new structure.