Getting to know the “Wild Martins” of the Sonoran Desert

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Getting to know the “Wild Martins” of the Sonoran Desert
Jonathan Horst, Tuscon Audubon

The Desert Purple Martin is the least studied subspecies of Purple Martin. A “wild” and independent martin, it nests almost exclusively in cavities in two species of giant cactus – the saguaro and the cardon; it does not currently use any human-created cavities. Its migration pathways and over-wintering sites are unknown, as well as many components of its basic biology. Tucson Audubon is working with numerous partners to study many of the basic life-history aspects of these desert martins…which involves significant physical obstacles including natural-cavity nests that cannot be opened for easy access, that are frequently at 20′ or higher, are enclosed in thorns, located in remote and frequently protected desert locations with breeding season temperatures well above 100F. Desert Martin research and conservation is critical as saguaros in Arizona are under dramatic threat due to invasive plant driven fires, which the saguaros cannot withstand, and climate change. The timescale to regenerate breeding-cavity size saguaros exceeds a century – leading Tucson Audubon to begin numerous habitat conservation activities for desert martins even with significant gaps in life history. We’ll discuss what is currently known, what we’re learning, and demonstrate many of the logistical hurdles we face in these conservation and research efforts.

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