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For the love of a bug-eating violet bird

A baby protests getting his new silver bracelet that identifies him for the ­­­U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)1 / 2
A one-year-old male martin fills his face - literally. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)2 / 2

For Don Wilkins, preservation of an endangered violet blue bird has been a retirement obsession.

The 200+ adults and 450 chicks make up the largest purple martin population in the state.

Thursday was banding day.

Chicks of the right age, not too small or large, received a silver U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service band on the right leg. On the left, a red band identifying the babies as Minnesota born and raised, along with some local identifiers. Both bands carry serial numbers that are recorded with USFWS in the fall.

Studying martins' habitat and survival rates might be key to boosting that longevity.

"Ninety percent die the first year," Wilkins said. Once the birds are banded they can be tracked through their winter migration across the Gulf of Mexico, back up the East Coast in the spring and into Minnesota to Wilkins - and other preservationists' - colonies.

"Last year I got one with a band," Wilkins said. "Turned out to belong to a friend of mine in Brainerd."

Because of a shortage of bands, Wilkins will only tag 100 birds this summer, not the entire hatch.

He has a banding permit that only allows him to tag certain birds. The martins will be the chosen few.

He meticulously wades through his charming colony of stenciled birdhouses and gourds on Long Lake, lifting the tops of homes and peering deep inside. If the birds fly out, they're too old to be banded.

He gently places the "bandable" chicks in a brown paper bag, carries them to shore and begins the process.

As each is banded, they're transferred to an empty paper bag where they often flap their fledgling wings in protest. Occasionally a tiny squawk can be heard, again in protest.

Purple martins are enjoying a resurgence, thanks to people like Wilkins and others. In 24 years, Wilkins has banded 5,000.

At one point he gave up. He was the only one banding. Then a state purple martin association hatched and members now collaborate with information on the birds.

"When the Minnesota group got going I figured I could contribute a lot," Wilkins said, so he resumed banding and sharing his considerable knowledge of the birds with other aficionados.

Wilkins will record the location, type of bird, its age and sex if he can determine it, into USFWS databases.

The state group, and many others, decided to place their own bands on birds because the federal bands with an eight-digit serial number, can't be read through even the most powerful binoculars or spotting scopes.

The Minnesota bands have three digits, one letter of the alphabet and a tiny denotation of the state it comes from. Local birds can easily be spotted and tracked with their bright red bracelets.

The state group has talked about outfitting some birds with geo-locators that would be worn on the bird's back and looped over the wings. That will give preservationists a unique look at migration patterns and hours of travel.

Wilkins spends hours tending his colony, checking the nests and observing the birds' behavior.

Some days he even hauls out his tripod and camera for a closer look.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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