By PAULENE POPARAD
“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
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
“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
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.”