The Prairie Adventures column written by Patricia Stockdill was published April 6, 2012 in Minot Air Force Base's Northern Sentry featuring the Purple Martin Association of the Dakotas.


We’re hoping a large number of our birds come back with their “backpacks” on.
– Paul Mammenga, Purple Martin Association of the Dakotas co-founder and purple martin researcher.

Paul Mammenga is eagerly awaiting his purple martins’ return.

Like most martin landlords diligently monitoring and maintaining apartments and gourds, he enjoys watching the entertaining antics of the largest member of
the swallow family.

This year, Mammenga hopes to see martins wearing backpacks.

Yes, backpacks.

These backpacks are special geolocators, tiny electronic devices tracking movements and migration based on latitude and the amount of daylight.  “It’s (geolocator) recording this data every day,” Mammenga described.

Mammenga, Columbia, S.D., is a South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department waterfowl biologist and co-founder of the Purple Martin Association of the
Dakotas with fellow martin enthusiast Perry Vogel, Grand Forks.

Together with his brother, Dennis, York University, Purple Martin Conservation Association (PMCA), and S.D.  Game, Fish and Parks, Mammenga is conducting groundbreaking research tracking martin migration routes, movements and identify pre-migratory roosts.

The geolocator “backpack” fits across a martin’s back and harnesses around their legs.  It’s so tiny it doesn’t hinder their flying abilities.  Data is obtained by re-capturing the bird, removing the geolocator and downloading its data into a computer.  

A spring 2009 PMCA magazine story about the first use of the geolocators on martins piqued Mammenga’s interest.  The data revealed two birds made a 500-mile, non-stop flight over the Gulf of Mexico en route to Brazil during fall migration.  

Mammenga decided to sponsor the cost of a geolocator for the Pennsylvania-based research tracking 2009 fall migration.  To his excitement, his bird was one of the first re-captured in 2010.  The backpack’s data revealed the bird left Pennsylvania Aug.  13, 2009, stopping once somewhere in Tennessee or Kentucky and arrived on the Louisiana Gulf Coast Aug.  15.  It crossed the Gulf of Mexico in three days, arriving at the Yucatan Peninsula Aug.  18, languished there for more than a week to rest and arrived in Brazil’s Amazon Sept.  20.  

Its spring migration was even faster, leaving Brazil approximately April 5 and arriving at PMCA headquarters where it initially received its backpack on April 24, 2010.  

Last year, Mammenga wrote a grant to start groundbreaking research in South Dakota by placing 15 geolocators on purple martins raised at his brother’s Sioux Falls, S.D.  colony and 18 at Mammenga’s colony.  

Now, Mammenga resembles an expectant father - his purple martins should soon begin arriving at their colonies.  Birds typically arrive at Dennis’ colony in early April.  “He usually gets them a whole week before we do,” he explained.  

Each bird with a geolocator also has a colored leg band for easier identification, so Mammenga will eagerly be watching his birds with binoculars and spotting scope in hand.  

His interest is heightened because he has the opportunity to continue the research in 2012.

“What’s going to be nerve-wracking is when do you take the old one off (geolocator) and put the new ones on…it’s going to be exciting to see what you can learn next year,” he described.

Mammenga will replace geolocators on 15 martins this spring, providing another year of data on the same birds.  

His research provides new insight into purple martins, especially birds west of the Mississippi River and in the Central Plains of the United States.