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Published on August 10, 2012 by

Every year they return.  They come by the thousands, and completely alter Richmond.  They change traffic patterns.  They stay up until all hours of the night making noise and annoying the locals.  They occupy prime real estate in the city.  They generally make a mess and have a certain smell about them.

I am referring, of course…  to the Purple Martins!  (Only slightly smellier than VCU students!)

They gather…

Richmond has the distinction of being a convenient layover for the largest swallow in all of North America.  These birds travel from as far north as Canada (eh?) as far south as Brazil.  Richmond is a nice place to stop on that journey and catch some local bugs at the James.

Getting closer…

This happens with such regularity, that the City of Richmond has done what the City of Richmond does for just about everything that happens with some regularity (watermelons are in season, let’s go stand in the middle of Carytown on the hottest day of the year!): created a festival!  If you happened to be in Shockoe Bottom last Saturday (August 4th) then you got to experience purple gelato, purple martinis, purple creole, purple kabobs, purple etouffee, you get the idea… everything was PURPLE!

Even closer…

So, why have a festival by the Farmer’s Market?  Well, as it turns out the Purple Martins have taken a particular liking to this area, especially the stand of Bartlett Pear trees.  Every evening around dusk from now until around the end of August.  Why do they enjoy these particular trees is anyone’s guess, but (as of last count) all ~19,500 of them seem to enjoy these close quarters!

The new owners of U-Krops should seriously consider sponsoring these guys.

One of the things that I love about birds is the plethora (triple word score!) of bird specific terms.  In learning about the Great Blue Herons of Pipeline Rapids for the James River Association, I learned that a grouping of herons is a siege.  A flock of crows is a murder, and swans come in wedges, but I could not find anything specifically relating to Purple Martins.  SO, I am going to make my own!  A group of swallows (which, as mentioned earlier, Purple Martins are) is called a flight.  Since these particular swallows are purple, and purple is a color of royalty, I recommend that we call a group of Purple Martins a royal flight!  Or, when they come together in such huge numbers as this and get all smoke monster from Lost I think they should be called a royal murmuration!  Go forth and use these terms!

Finally they have circled enough and head into the trees.

Or have they? Something spooked them and they hit the abort button.

Hawks and Peregrine Falcons (the fastest members of the animal kingdom live right here in Richmond!) take advantage of the royal murmuration and swoop in for a free dinner.  The swallows are ready for this and take back to the air, circling more.  By slowly descending and then suddenly (they are fast) taking to the trees they are able to keep an eye out for predators and then confuse them at the last minute until they reach the safety of the branches.  Still, a family outing may involve explaining to little Timmy the birds and the… well… the birds.  There will be blood (maybe).

If one in the hand is worth two in the bush, how much are two in a tree worth?

If you have not done so, I highly recommend heading down to the 17th Street Farmers Market and seeing this awesome sight.  As the light grows dim and they start taking  to the trees at high speeds, photography becomes a difficult business.  It’s difficult to properly convey the feeling and noise (and smell) of almost 20,000 birds swooping above your head and turning the trees into a living, breathing mass of Progne subis.  To learn more about the birds, check out The Purple Martin Conservation Association website.  (Side note, they are based out of my family’s hometown of Erie, PA!  I’ll have to stop by the next time I go  up for my pepperoni ball fix!  Drooool…)


Is there anything in RVA YOU want to see and learn more about?   Leave a comment or email me at my new address: nick@photorva.com!  Or TWEET me @PhotoRVA.  I’m always up for exploring our area, even when it requires an umbrella and a car wash after!


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  1. […] visit Downtown yearly to teach us about the birds and the… well… the birds.  We have royal murmerations of Purple Martins that make RVA a stop-over on the trip from Canada to Brazil.  We also have another winged visitor […]

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