Students assisted with banding the Purple Martin colony at the Glen Mills Schools.

Students assisted with banding the Purple Martin colony at the Glen Mills Schools.

Purple Martins, the largest birds in the North American swallow family, have been at the Glen Mills Schools (GMS) for over a quarter century. According to the colony manager, the bluish-black birds are a “treasure” for the school and the state.

“We have been designated by the state House of Representatives as being the Purple Martin Capital of Pennsylvania,” said Don McNeal, explaining the colony was established in 1985 and continues to thrive.

In early July, GMS students had an opportunity to assist in the annual banding of young purple martins. The hands-on process involved attaching a numbered band on the lower part of each bird’s leg to allow researchers to track the bird’s migration patterns. It migrates to North America from as far away as Brazil.

Students had the chance to get up close with nature and learn about the birds that call GMS home. “I really enjoyed it,” Hayes Hall student Steven Jolly said. “That was a totally new experience and it was neat to be involved in it.”

The acrobatic, quick diving birds help keep the campus insect population under control, as they eat just about any insect, from mosquitoes to wasps. This eliminates the need to spray chemicals. Purple Martins essentially act as natural pest control, feasting on a steady diet of insects.

Purple Martins, who inhabit the Midwest as well as the Florida-to-Maine corridor, fly in groups and often return to the place where they hatched. The first time a young Purple Martin, or “fledge,” tries to fly, they are supported by many of the adults in the colony.
“That’s something at Glen Mills we can appreciate, because it shows support for somebody, or, in this case a bird, trying to do something for the first time,” McNeal added.
Licensed bird bander Doris McGovern appreciates the local colony. “I love it,” McGovern said. “I’ve been banding here since 1997 and it’s my favorite place to be.”

According to McGovern, the Purple Martin population in Pennsylvania is decreasing by about five percent per year. This can be attributed to many things, such as agricultural practices and fewer insects, and makes the Glen Mills colony valuable because its birds foster new colonies. Bob Lange, from Malvern, said some birds from the local colony helped establish the new colony he started on his own property.

The Glen Mills Schools (GMS) is an open residential facility for court-adjudicated youth between ages 12 and 18. Founded in 1826, GMS is the oldest continuous operating school of its kind in the United States.


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