By Molly Schools, Aug 30, 2019

Project Profile

This post is part of a collaboration between SciStarter and Career in STEM, in which writers spotlight different citizen science projects, interview project leaders about their careers, and create educational content for teachers and students. This series is available on the Science Connected, Career in STEM, SciStarter, and Discover Magazine blog platforms.

As the sun sinks low below the horizon and the crisp night air begins to descend, a miraculous sight can be seen in many areas across the continental United States. Hundreds of thousands of birds will suddenly appear at dusk, swarming in vast numbers as they move across the sky before quickly tucking their wings into their bodies and rapidly diving into their shared roost for the night. This behavior is characteristic of the Purple Martin, North America’s largest swallow species. Interest in this particular behavior is also what led to the founding of the Purple Martin Project, a conservation effort designed to help protect this bird species. 

Purple martins swarm at sunset before returning to their nightly roost.
Image credit: the Purple Martin Conservation Association

Purple martins gather

In the late months of summer, Purple Martins will gather in large numbers to socialize and rest before beginning their fall migration to the much warmer climate of Brazil, where they will stay for the winter. This behavior is referred to as “pre-migratory roosting.” Groups of both researchers and conservationists have taken an interest in this behavior and its implications for the well-being of the Purple Martin. While the swarms of birds are an amazing sight, the roosts of Purple Martins will often appear in places that people may not enjoy being host to tens to hundreds of thousands of birds at a time, such as next to parking lots or under bridges. The dedicated team at the Purple Martin Conservation Association (PMCA) has developed the program, Project Martin Roost, in an attempt to learn more about Purple Martins, in addition to helping out these roosts that may have appeared in inconvenient areas. 

Project Martin Roost

The goal of Project Martin Roost is to identify and locate as many pre-migratory roosting sites as possible, in addition to gaining new data on already existing sites. With this information, PMCA is able to work with communities and other interested groups to make sure that the roosts are located in the best possible areas for both the birds and the humans that are being affected by their presence. Project leaders work to educate the community about the significance and benefits of  Purple Martin roosts, along with relocating roosts to safer locations. 

PMCA is a small, nonprofit organization that relies heavily on citizen scientists and volunteers to assist them in collecting the data that is necessary for them to learn as much as possible about the location of these roosts. Volunteers act as the “eyes on the ground” according to Joe Siegrist, the CEO and president of PMCA. According to Joe, “volunteers allow us to cover much more area and are critical to the growth of the organization and the conservation of Purple Martins.” 

Project Martin Roost is expanding its citizen science efforts to Brazil, so that they can learn even more about the roosting sites in South America, where Purple Martins spend time before migrating north for the spring and summer months.

Tracking Down Purple Martins

The Purple Martin Conservation Association provides an interactive map that makes it easy to get started tracking down Purple Martin roosts in your own community. Advancements in radar technology have helped to locate potential Purple Martin roosts, as their swarms are often so large that satellites are able to register their location as a storm cloud. The map located on the nonprofit’s website provides the locations of both confirmed and unconfirmed locations of Purple Martin Roosts across the nation. To get started, all that citizen scientists have to do is check out the map and see if there is a dot located near them. According to Joe, “people are surprised, but there may be a roost located behind a Denny’s or a parking lot close to them.”

With that information, your own scavenger hunt can then begin. At dusk, you too can look to see the characteristic swarms of birds that indicate a roost located nearby. The tricky part is attempting to see the exact habitat that these birds return to as a group for the evening. It may even take a few tries to accurately see which cluster of trees or bridge these birds are returning to night after night. Once you find this habitat, that information can be reported to Project Martin Roost, and you can begin to look for the next roost.

Q&A with Joe Siegrist


Image: Thousands of Purple martins fill the sky at dusk
Picture credit: the Purple Martin Conservation Association

Q: What citizen science project do you represent?

Three projects: Project MartinRoost, Project MartinWatch, and the Scout-Arrival Study.

Q: What’s your professional background?

I have worked as a zookeeper, a naturalist, a field biologist, an educator, and now am president of a conservation non-profit.

Q: Were you interested in science as a kid?

Absolutely. Biology was always my favorite, but I loved chemistry and physics, too!

Q: Did you study a STEM field, or did you come to a STEM career in a different way?

I majored in Biology in undergrad and studied Wildlife Conservation in graduate school.

Q: How did you start this citizen science project? What made you want to start it?

Project MartinRoost was started because of the need to better understand how Purple Martins (a species of swallow) choose what habitat they form huge flocks in right before they migrate from North America to the Amazon Rainforest.  These large flocks sometimes upset landowners or are at risk of harm, and the Purple Martin Conservation Association (PMCA) is often needed to intervene.

Q: How does someone participate in your project?

Project MartinRoost participation is easy.  Just check out the map on our website to see if we suspect any roosts near you and then head there at sunset and observe the spectacle of thousands of Purple Martins arriving at sunset.  Then, just fill out our website form on what you saw.

Our other projects are just as easy; they involve recording the contents of bird nests weekly or just telling us when you see your first Purple Martin of the year! (Project Martin Watch, Scout-Arrival Study)

Q: How has your project changed over time? For example, has it grown in participants? Have the research goals changed?

Project MartinRoost has grown over time.  We hope that it will continue to grow until we know where every roost is, and we will have people that check on them every year.

Q: Where is your project going next?

We’ll be updating our map with updated radar data in case the roosts have moved recently.

Q: If a student wanted to have a career like yours, what advice would you give them?

Get experience working on field crews.  Researchers are always looking for help collecting data.  Contact local university researchers and see if there are opportunities for volunteering to help.

Q: What can students do NOW to start preparing for a career like yours?

Be curious and find answers. The internet allows you to answer just about any question you have about the natural world.  Learn as much as you can about whatever interests you. Work hard in school and ask your teachers about opportunities to expand your learning beyond class.

About the Author

Molly Schools
Molly Schools

Molly Schools is a graduate student pursuing her PhD at Temple University in Philadelphia. Her research studies the genetics, evolution and ecology of a group lizards in the Caribbean. Many species in the Caribbean are threatened by habitat loss and her research will allow for more informed conservation efforts targeting these lizards and other similar species. In her limited free time Molly enjoys any activity that will get her outside such as hiking, kayaking and camping.

Classroom Resources

A PDF of the worksheet is available here.

Plain text version of the educational worksheet:

1. In what direction do Purple Martins fly?

A. North to South

B. South to North

C. Both

D. Neither

2. How long does the pre-roosting season of Purple Martins last?

A. One to Two months

B. Two to Three months

C. One to Three months

D. Three to Four months

3. Write three things that affect the daily activities of a Purple Martin during their pre-migratory roosting period.

4. Where do Purple Martins roost?

5. In what year were the pre-migratory roosting habits of Purple Martins first studied?

6. What are some things Purple Martins do when lying during the pre-migratory months?

7. What are some benfits of pre-migratory roosting for Purple Martins?

8. True or false: all migratory birds engage in pre-migratory activity.

True

False

9. True or false: climate affects whether birds roost before migrating.

True

False

10. What are some other bird species that engage in pre-migratory roosting?

A. Ducks and White-Crowned Sparrows

B. White-Crowned Sparrows only

C. Ducks and wild birds found in warmer climates

D. Wild birds found in warmer climates and White-Crowned Sparrows

11. What are some pre-migratory practices of these other birds?

A. Molting feathers, feeding, and fattening up for

the coming journey

B. Molting feathers and sharpening their foraging skills

C. Fattening up for the coming journey and sharpening

their foraging skills

D. Molting feathers and acclimating to the new climate

12. What is a benefit of participating in this citizen science project?

13. Jump onto Career In STEM’s list of career activities. What are some careers that incorporate observing animals?

Special thanks to Project Martin Roost for their citizen science work and collaboration on this three-part spotlight.

Editorial and educational work: Career in STEM

Design: SciStarter

Photo credit: Pixabay

Some useful articles and online resources:


Answer Key:

1. C

2. B

3. Sunrise, precipitation, and spurious ground echoes

4. Roosting sites always take place by large lakes

5. 1910

6. Foraging

7. Reduces the risk of being attacked by predators, increased ability to regulate their internal temperature, and having more advanced food foraging abilities all come with pre-migratory roosting. All these prevent deaths during migration and extend the life of Purple Martin flocks.

8. False

9. False

10. D

11. A

12. Identify unknown roosting sites of Purple Martins, as well as further observe the habits of roosting Purple Martins.

13. Bioacoustic Researcher and Biologist

About the Author

Briana Hernandez

Briana Hernandez is the Program Manager of Career in STEM. She has technical training in electronics technology and is also a professional writer. Passionate about coaching students for STEAM careers, Briana has expertise in creative writing, graphic design, electronics technology, and introductory career exploration. She is currently pursuing an MFA at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, CT and speaks both English and Spanish.

Want more citizen science? Check out SciStarter’s Project Finder! With citizen science projects spanning every field of research, task and age group, there’s something for everyone!

Tags: Birds, North America, Project Martin Roost, Purple Martins, South America