Chesterton Tribune

Albino purple martin was special treat for Henry Janowski

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“Isn’t she pretty?” Henry Janowski asks, admiring the all-white baby bird huddled against its colorful siblings in their nest.

Janowski has been erecting purple martin bird houses since 1954 and this year something new and very unexpected happened: an albino purple martin hatched. In fact, two in the same nest.

According to the Nature Society News, the self-described Voice of the Purple Martin, partial albino martins appear somewhat regularly, but Janowski believes a true pink-eyed albino martin is fairly rare. So does Ralph Grundel of the United States Geological Survey, who obtained his Ph.D. in bird studies.

Janowski, 78, was checking one of his three martin houses earlier this month when he found the albino twins. “During that night one albino went into a vacant (birdhouse) apartment and died.” The remaining twin appears healthy and is preparing to leave the nest the first week in August.

Janowski is a purple martin booster, so much so a sign at his mailbox bears their silhouette in flight where they can achieve speeds of more than 40 mph.

“They are a very graceful bird, good flyers, and all their food comes out of the air. They’ll eat flying insects, dragonflies, and about 2,000 mosquitoes per day,” he explains. “The only time they land on the ground is to pick up bedding for their nest.”

Martins prefer to nest near human activity; in fact, they’re almost totally dependent on man to provide their nesting sites, said Janowski.

His spacious Indian Boundary Road property, with a creek at its edge, is ideal. Martins need an open “flyway” apart from trees to accommodate their circular gliding patterns. At eight inches the largest member of the swallow family, the iridescent blue-black martins (the female has a lighter belly) will return to the same nesting site generation after generation if they like the accommodations.

Janowski has three martin houses or a total of 48 “rooms,” each six inches square. The aluminum houses, easiest to clean, are on 40-foot poles and are lowered down three times a week so the gloved Janowski can inspect the rooms for sick or dead birds.

And for sparrow nests.

Janowski doesn’t have a kind word to say about sparrows. With the martin nest hole 2 1/8-inches, one inch off the floor, sparrows are able to move right in. “They take over a nest, pick on the martin’s eggs, even throws them out of the nest.”

Janowski employs two types of live sparrow traps. When caught, “I can take them for a ride about six miles away so they won’t bother me any more; some people do other things with them.”

Janowski initially also had trouble with a red-tailed hawk. “He landed on a martin house and opened one of the doors with his foot, pulled out a male ‘scout’ which are the first to arrive about April 9, carried it away and ate it.” Janowski solved that problem by anchoring bicycle spokes to the martin-house roofs, making it impossible for the hawks to land. It’s a tip he’s shared with other martin enthusiasts.

June 25, Janowski took his annual martin inventory. This year he had 52 eggs, six babies and 26 adults counted that day. Janowski has kept detailed records of his martin colony for many years.

Although he has five bluebird boxes as well, martins are Janowski’s first love. He begins each day watching the martins cavort and misses them when they migrate to their winter home in South America.

Grundel said of the 352 bird species identified here in Ken Brock’s “Birds of the Indiana Dunes,” about two-thirds are summer residents only. “Warblers are migrants and the ones birdwatchers like to find.” During this year’s annual North American breeding bird survey, the elusive Blackburnian Warbler was sighted here, increasing evidence that they’re breeding in the area.

Even more unexpected was the previous sighting here of a Florida wood stork native to cypress swamps. “That’s beyond rare,” said Grundel. “It’s an accident. We’ve gotten birds that shouldn’t be seen within a thousand miles.”

Overall, Grundel said Duneland is a good area for birding because of its diverse habitats, and because Lake Michigan has a funneling effect, forcing birds that don’t fly over open water to swing around northwest Indiana to cross the lake.

National Park Service wildlife biologist Randy Knutson believes birding is popular for a number of reasons.

“You get outside your house or office. It’s always like a never-ending challenge because there are so many different birds,” said Knutson. “It can take a lifetime to become a great birder. You can socialize with it, too, giving people something in common. Also, it doesn’t take a ton of money to get started; no boat or skis to buy.”

Janowski’s hopeful that the albino martin will return to his colony every year, but Bob Daum, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore chief of Resource Management, said that might not happen. With the absence of protective pigmentation, the albino could have a tougher time surviving.

Then again, said Daum, “Purple martins are pretty good flyers.”


Posted 8/7/2001