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Purple martins are a major menace to mosquitoes

APACHE, Okla. (AP) -- If you visit Gene Collins' east Apache home one hot, summer day, don't be surprised to find light gleaming off large, white birdhouses hoisted high into the air, and don't be surprised to find purple martins flying about the scene. Do, however, be surprised if you find yourself the victim of a pesky mosquito bite.

While the purple birds might seem more surprising than the presence of a mosquito in most places, the opposite is true at Collins' home -- the mosquitoes are the real oddity. The purple martin, you see, is natural predator of the mosquito, and people like Collins all over the country are using the birds as a way to control local mosquito populations.

For Collins, the birds have been a lifelong passion.

"I've been at it a long time," he said. "I started at it when I was a boy, and now I'm 89 years old."

It's with that introduction that Collins proudly brings out the Bible of sorts for martin lovers, "Attracting Purple Martins," by J.L. Wade. In the 1960s, Wade found that a focused effort to attract the birds to his town could virtually eradicate what had become a major problem.

Wade grew up on the Illinois River, and remembered that attracting martins using wood homes had been an effective way to control mosquitoes. That memory sparked a major project in which Wade eventually turned his antenna company into an aluminum purple martin home manufacturer. Aluminum doesn't conduct heat, so it makes the coolest home for the birds.

"In a few years these martins consumed enough mosquitoes that people didn't have a problem," he said.

When Wade's book came out in 1987, Collins was inspired.

"We have a purple martin club in Apache and we got to thinking like J.L. Wade," Collins said. "We decided we would try what he'd tried."

Since that time Collins and his fellow club members have worked around town to educate people on the benefits of the birds and if they wish, sell them a birdhouse or two. Overall, he says he's sold about 100 birdhouses, and they've made a big impact.

"It's made a lot of difference," Collins said. "We don't have mosquitoes here anymore."

It's believed that martins can eat 2,000 mosquitoes a day. "This is based on actual fact, looking at the content of the stomach of a dead martin," says Karen Martin, editor of the Nature Society News, the newsletter of the nonprofit wing of Wade's company.

Collins says two of the worst threats to martins are sparrows and starlings.

"Sparrows will build a nest (in the martin compartments)," Collins said. Messy sparrow nests can trap or block out martins, which generally keep a tidy nest.

Collins uses sparrow traps to keep the birds away, then destroys the birds so they don't come back.

"They've been declared a nuisance by the government," Collins said.

Getting rid of starlings is slightly easier. Collins hangs small mirrors from the houses, which reflect sunlight and scare away pests.

Collins says he hopes to see the purple martin form of mosquito control used more often in cities of all sizes. Purple martin homes sell for about $90 if purchased through the Nature Society or through Collins. Other manufacturers sell their won models at prices ranging from $80 to $100.
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