One of Walt Disney World’s most successful conservation measures was not planned. But now, 18 years later, the Purple Martins are traveling long distances to nest and mate at Epcot — and Disney conservationists are learning how and why.
“In 2000, when we did our conservation garden, those boxes [houses for Purple Martins] were put up as a prop — and we got birds! So, we never intended to have purple martins,” said Eric Darden, horticulture manager of the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. “I like to point to that as the beginning of what we like to think of as the Conservation Festival. … We’re talking about nature, we’re talking about gardening, we’re talking about the environment. Plus, we’re gardeners!”
Recently, Jason Fisher, conservation program manager for Disney’s Animal Science and Environment division, and Vivian Hernandez, a conservation program technician, spoke to members of the media about the Purple Martins habitat at Epcot, which is highlighted during the Flower and Garden Festival. Here is what we learned:
When do the birds arrive at Walt Disney World?
Our birds first start arriving here in January and they kind of trickle in February and our colonies build up in larger numbers. We now have 20 houses scattered throughout Walt Disney World, 150 to 170 pairs of birds nesting here each year and over 500 Purple Martin chicks born here each year.
Where do the Purple Martins come from?
They travel 3,000 miles from the middle of the Amazon in Brazil. The ones that you see here this year will be the same exact birds next year.
How do you know that? Don’t all Purple Martins look alike?
Yes, the girls are all a brown color and the boys are that really shiny purple color. But it’s not from what they look like. Every year we try to put bands on as many birds as possible to identify them. We call them MagicBands. We also put a lightweight geo-locator on them that doesn’t interfere with flying and allows us to track their positions.
When the Purple Martins are at Walt Disney World, what are they doing?
Inside each one of these gourds, there’s a little hunk of pine needles that we actually put in at the beginning of each season because that’s what Purple Martins love to build their nests out of. And then the Purple Martins come in and they weave it into this beautiful nest, add some dead leaves because everyone likes a little something to spruce up the joint — a little touch of home — and then they start laying eggs. Usually our eggs start appearing right around now. This year has been a really interesting year for us. Our birds started laying eggs three weeks early so we actually have nests that mom and dad have been sitting on for a while now.
Once those eggs are laid, each day mom lays one more egg until she’s laid the whole clutch (group). Uusally it’s 4, 5 or 6 eggs, and she sits on them once she’s done laying and it’s her body heat that kickstarts the development process. So, all of them develop at the same pace, even though the oldest and the youngest can be almost a week apart. Then all of them hatch together about two weeks later.
Mom and Dad then go on this furious feeding binge. Everything that these birds eat are insects that they snatch from the sky. So, if you see them flying around, they are incredibly acrobatic because they have to be faster than all those insects they are trying to grab. So, for a month, they feed these baby birds and then the babies are ready to jump out of the nest for the very first time and fly.
How can guests at Epcot see the Purple Martins?
There is a cluster of houses located on the back side of Mouse Gear, and we have a telescope set up there so guests can see the birds on and in their houses. Also, at 11 a.m. each Wednesday and Sunday, a cast member inspects each birdhouse so guests may get a close-up look then, too. We’re at the front end of our nesting season and every Purple Martin pair is on a slightly different schedule. Our early nesters are started. Some of our birds take their time and aren’t going to start until maybe mid- to late May. We’re going to have birds here from now all the way until the end of June, sometimes into July, as well.
Can guests get involved with Purple Martins conservation at home?
Yes! What Walt Disney World is doing is part of a big citizen science research project with the Purple Martin Conservation Association. Folks all over the country put out these bird houses to try to help purple martins and then they keep an eye on them and turn their data over to the group, so we can learn more about what makes Purple Martins tick.
DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Walt Disney World during its Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival media day. This did not affect my story; my opinions are my own.