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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Hosting Purple Martins

by Kathy Freeze, Guest Blogger

The Purple Martin (Progne subis) is North America’s largest swallow. They are colonial-style nesters, meaning that they like to congregate and nest in close proximity at a particular location. After observing my aunt’s purple martin colony for years we finally moved to Missouri in 2006, and I decided to become a ‘landlord’ and start hosting purple martins. After 8 years, I now host 74 pairs and their delightful chatter, graceful flight and entertaining antics are the main attraction in my backyard for most of the summer.

Per the PMCA: Purple martins have been migrating to North America from Brazil for thousands of years. In the early years, before the first human beings arrived, the martins nested only in the abandoned nesting chambers of woodpeckers, or in the other natural cavities of dead trees or in cliffs. Today, east of the Rockies, martins nest only in human-supplied housing; either in elaborate bird house condominiums known as “martin houses” or in natural or artificial gourds. Known as a “behavioral tradition shift”, this has been attributed to several factors including the offering of gourds with holes by the Native American Indians, which were an easily obtained nesting site by the martins and later, the introduction of non-native European Starlings and English House Sparrows who took over the natural cavities. The purple martin is now the only bird species in North America that is totally dependent on humans for supplying them with nesting sites. In fact, if humans were to stop supplying martins with homes, they would likely disappear as a breeding bird in eastern North America.

 Today, I offer 84 cavities consisting of a combination of aluminum housing and man-made plastic gourds located approximately 75 feet from my own home. You would think that these wild, beautiful birds would prefer to be further away from their nosey landlord; however, if their housing was located over 200 feet away by my pond, they would likely not nest there. The PMCA suggests the reason for this phenomenon is the martins feel safer when nesting closer to humans as there are likely fewer predators where there is human activity.

Ironically, the downside of having so many noisy birds concentrated in one area is that they draw attention from all these predators. The nocturnal predators are the worst as 100% of the martins are all tucked into the housing and can’t see the hunters coming. Indeed, all my housing poles are equipped with predator guards to keep any ground-dwelling predators such as snakes or raccoons from climbing the poles and making a meal out of my beautiful birds. As of this past summer, after experiencing numerous nightly owl attacks, I’ve added additional protection from flying predators to keep the opportunistic Great Horned Owl from feeding at my colony.  

If I allowed the predators to freely predate my colony, the purple martins would eventually abandon my site. As they only nest and breed once a year (sometimes twice in the more southern states), they are more attracted to sites that are well-managed and predator and nest-site competitor free, or as close to it as possible.

Throughout the course of their nesting cycle, I also participate in a research program with the PMCA known as “Project MartinWatch". It’s a continent-wide, scientific project where participants monitor their martins’ nests weekly, record the information (number of eggs laid, number of eggs hatched, number of young fledged, etc.), which will allow the research group to determine the range-wide reproductive success and annual population trends of the purple martins. For some years, I have also participated in banding more than one thousand young hatchling and adult martins here at my site, which will allow us to track their returns and recoveries (deaths) in upcoming years.  

The very nature of man-made housing, combined with heat, moisture and so many birds nesting on one pole, often results in a huge increase in parasites within the nest cavities. As too many of these parasites can result in a high mortality rate for the young nestlings, I frequently monitor for them and, if necessary, replace wet nests, nests fouled with dead nestlings, or parasite-infested nests with fresh nest material, increasing the chances of survival for the nestlings.

The first purple martin back to my site in early spring will always chirp a greeting and happily fly circles around me in my yard when he/she arrives and some of the regulars have become used to my intrusions into their nests and they will perch above and vocalize their displeasure while I go about my weekly chores. We have a mutually beneficial relationship – the purple martins eat lots of bugs in my area and provide me with hours of delight, while I provide them with a safe, predator-free (as much as possible) nesting site. Even with all the handling and interactions with my purple martins, they have not become a tame pet --  they still remain wild and free to come and go as they please and that’s what makes our relationship so enjoyable.


  1. Thank you Aya, for inviting me to guest post on your blog! I could write pages & pages and talk for hours about purple martins. There is so much to learn and they are so enjoyable to watch and listen to.
    And you have to admire their tenacity - despite the owl attacks, I had many martins that persisted and raised and fledged their young, even returning multiple nights after the young fledged. I have lots of work to do this fall to erect more guards around the gourd racks. For some reason, he really focused on the house...maybe because he could see the kids on the porches.
    Anyway, thanks again!

    1. Thanks for agreeing to do the guest blog post, Kathy! I find it fascinating that humans and purple martins can cooperate this way, without the martins losing their autonomy. It also seems this has been a natural progression to cooperative behavior and a collaboration toward a solution, rather than a strictly man-made resolution to the problem of changing conditions.