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Willmar, Minn., 'landlord' to purple martin colony to host MartinFest! later this month

Dick Doll captures chicks from his colony to band in this photo from July 2009. Doll will be hosting the ninth annual Minnesota MartinFest! on July 25 at his home north of Willmar. The free event is an opportunity to learn how easy and fun it can be to host a purple martin colony. (Tribune file photo

WILLMAR -- As faithfully as purple martins gather to roost prior to their migration each fall, so too will birding enthusiasts join near Willmar to learn all about these and other songbirds.

Dick Doll's home and purple martin nesting colony near King Lake north of Willmar will be the site for the ninth annual Minnesota MartinFest! from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. June 25.

The public is welcome to enjoy the day, a picnic lunch ($5 donation asked), and learn about hosting purple martins; chimney swift restoration; and how to attract and house bluebirds, tree swallows and wood ducks from well-known experts.

Doll is one of the state's better-known purple martin "landlords,'' and not only because of the successful colony of purple martins he hosts. Since 2007 he's been banding birds in his colony as part of an ongoing study conducted by the Minnesota Purple Martin Working Group in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Audubon, and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

Doll's work has helped track the Willmar colony of birds to their wintering area in Brazil, and has offered important information on their roosting patterns. Doll was able to locate the bird's fall roosting area. Most colonies prefer islands surrounded by lots of water, but the Willmar colony favors a cornfield surrounded by what else, yet other fields of corn and soybeans.

Purple martins are acrobatic daredevils who devour winged insects as their primary food source, so these Willmar birds are not exactly corn-powered for their trip south.

The purple martin's annual migration to wintering grounds and back covers a distance of roughly 8,000 miles.

Doll is among three Minnesota landlords being selected for a geolocator study that will tell more about their migration route and practices. Doll said 24 geolocators are going to be placed on purple martins from three different Minnesota colonies. Eight of the chosen birds will be from his Willmar colony.

The tiny geolocators do not adversely affect the individual birds. When they return, Doll and others will capture them and retrieve the geolocator. It keeps a daily record of sunlight hours, which in turn is used to determine the bird's day-to-day locations.

The use of banding, tiny radio transmitters and, more recently, geolocator studies are providing a glimpse of some very interesting behavior by the birds, according to Doll. Researchers have been surprised at how quickly the small songbirds reach their wintering grounds. The studies also indicate there is a lot of mixing among colonies at roosting and wintering ground sites.

The birds know how to mix it up here, too. Doll said that one of the chicks he had banded, #B851, didn't return to his colony. Instead, fellow birding enthusiast Randy Frederickson spotted it at a purple martin housing complex erected at the Willmar Pet Hospital near the old airport.

Purple martins are dependent on human-built housing today. Their population is estimated to have declined by 78 percent in the last 40 years, according to the Minnesota Audubon.

Erecting houses to support their colonies can help reverse the trend. Doll said hosting a purple martin colony is lots of fun, and easy to do. The birds' song, acrobatic feats and activity are very enjoyable.

About the event:

WILLMAR -- The Purple MartinFest! is free and open to the public.

Registration is from 8 to 9 a.m. June 25 at the site, the Dick Doll residence at 511 60th Ave. N.E., Willmar. From Highways 23/71 north of Willmar, follow 60th Avenue west.

The schedule includes:

- 9:15 to 10 a.m. -- Purple martin basics with Kelly Applegate, director of the Minnesota Purple Martin Working Group, and a panel of purple martin experts.

- 10:15 to 11 a.m. -- Chimney swift conservation with Ron Sindingstad, Minnesota Audubon

- 11:15 to noon -- Attracting bluebirds and tree swallows, Keith Radel, Bluebird Recovery program

- Noon to 1 p.m. -- Picnic lunch ($5 donation appreciated)

- 1 to 1:45 p.m. -- Wood duck box management, Roger Strand, Wood Duck Society

- 2 to 2:30 p.m. -- Free door prizes, and all registered are eligible to win.

Registration is appreciated by calling Ron Seekamp at 763-571-7824 or email him at and include number of people attending, name, address, city, state, zip and phone number.

For more information:

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335