Purple Martins 101

Having become very familiar with my backyard birds and those on my bluebird route, I thought it high time to branch out and learn about some other species.

Purple Martins Perching

Purple Martins Perching

One species I have an interest in is Purple Martins.  They’re related to the Tree Swallows that nest in boxes along with Eastern Bluebirds on my monitor route.  A friend’s family had Purple Martins when she was a child.  And my sister-in-law has been trying to encourage them at her place without success.  So, what’s up with this bird that seems to fascinate people and nests in communities on top of tall poles?

A member of my birding club, also a volunteer at a nearby golf course where he takes care of its Eastern Bluebird nest boxes and Purple Martin colony, gave a presentation this past Saturday morning.  He called it “Purple Martins 101”.  Here’s what I learned … fascinating!

Lowering a Purple Martin House

Lowering a Purple Martin House

Native Americans observed Purple Martins nesting in woodpecker holds and natural cavities and began hollowing out gourds and hanging them on poles to attract the birds to nest in their villages.  The Purple Martins adapted to the human habitat offerings and over the centuries became accustomed to them.  European colonists learned how to encourage the martins and also invited them with housing.  The human offering of housing was so successful that today, Eastern Purple Martins nest exclusively in man-made housing!  Western Purple Martins, however, still largely nest the old-fashioned way … in old woodpecker holes and other natural nesting cavities.

I thought that communities of Purple Martins would not have to compete with other birds for nest cavities, but as it turns out many other birds do attempt to use the martin colony nest compartments.  Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, English (House) Sparrows, Starlings, House Wrens are the most common competing species.

Gathering Around To Peek Inside

Gathering Around To Peek Inside

After giving an hour-long presentation about the history and habits of Purple Martins, our host lowered a colony, opened several compartments and continued to educate us.

Purple Martin Nestling

Purple Martin Nestling

He removed nestlings from a nest infested with insects and replaced it with one he fashioned from Styrofoam.  He allowed participants to hold the tiny nestlings (no, birds never abandon their nestlings because humans have handled them).

I learned that Purple Martins enjoy open areas near water.  They rid the area of insects (though it’s a myth that they eat mosquitoes) and act as scarecrows for farmers.  They appreciate the proximity of humans whose presence helps keep predators away.

While I don’t foresee hosting a Purple Martin colony myself, this interesting bird and its relationship to humans is worth closer study.

Purple Martin Sanctuary

Purple Martin Sanctuary

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8 Responses to Purple Martins 101

  1. Pingback: Purple Martin Cruise Recap | Greater Irmo Chamber of Commerce

  2. Deb Platt says:

    I had no idea that our eastern Purple Martins only nest in man-made homes. We still have a lot of the traditional-style martin houses where I live, but now there is a new, gourd-like model that’s made of plastic, but which has been gaining in popularity (here’s a photo of one: http://www.flickr.com/photos/debplatt/7545015592/).

    I’m a little confused about the whole mosquito-eating thing. When you say:

    thought it’s a myth that they eat mosquitoes

    Do you mean that you thought it was a myth that they eat mosquitoes, but it turns out that it is true that they eat mosquitoes, or was that a typo and you meant to say “Though it was a myth”… meaning that people think they eat mosquitoes, but they don’t.

    The most common intruder that I see nesting in Purple Martin nests are House sparrows. House sparrows are also notorious around here for nesting in bluebird houses, too, much to the dismay of our bluebird lovers.

    • The Purple Martin colony at the golf course where the demonstration was held actually had a second house that was traditional but had several of the plastic gourds attached. They appear to be very easy to take care of and have good visibility for monitors.

      “Though” … it was a typo…that I actually tried to correct 3x. But had no luck, so I gave up and went to bed.

      The fellow who cares for the martin colony showed us a book about the birds that said Purple Martins eat mosquitos. He said it has since been proven they don’t. He made a joke saying he was not sure if the authors didn’t know better at the time of writing or if they just said that to encourage people to host Purple Martin colonies. 😉

      House Sparrows …. along with European Starlings … are every bird monitor’s nightmare. They are both invasive non-native species competing with (and killing) our native birds. Since these species are not native, it’s legal to “relocate them …. permanently” as our Purple Martin colony demonstrator reminded us. He had a House Sparrow trapped in one of the compartments. I saw him quietly remove it once the demo was over.

  3. The Birding Bunch says:

    I found your blog through the Tree Swallow tag. We just had a healthy brood of six leave their box.

    We had thought about putting up a Purple Martin house, but didn’t know if we could attract them, so we have done what we could to encourage what we know is here- Tree and Barn Swallows. Young Cliff Swallows have been around, but we do not believe they are nesting on the property; they must be coming from the creek which is a 1/2 mile away.

    For us, birding began with one homemade feeder from the children’s science curriculum. We didn’t think it would turn into what it is now.

    • Ha-ha …. yes, that’s how it often begins. A bird feeder turns into a passion. I understand the Purple Martins are somewhat difficult to attract. I have fledged many Tree Swallows on my Eastern Bluebird trail. They are interesting birds, although I wish they would not be so prolific and put pressure on the bluebirds.

      Thanks for stopping in!

      • The Birding Bunch says:

        Than you for following my blog. 🙂

        That’s interesting about the Tree Swallows. Do you have your Bluebird boxes far enough apart? I heard if they are closer together (around 100 feet) this is ideal for Tree Swallows, but not Bluebirds with a greater territory size.

        Thankfully, the House sparrows around our place have never figured out cavity nesting in boxes, but this might change. I am thinking about trying the two-hole (defensible) Bluebird boxes out in the pasture near our old grain bins, where the HOSP nest out of our reach, or they try the garage, but we knock those nests down.

        I peeked in our Bluebird box today as we’ve not seen the pair at the box for a handful of days. A wasp nest. 😦 We need to figure out how to prevent that for next year.

        • A minimum of 100 feet apart is acceptable for Bluebirds. The nest boxes are spaced appropriately for the Bluebird territories. Also, some are paired. That is, each station has two boxes about 10 feet apart. Each species will tolerate a different species in close proximity where they would not tolerate one of their own. This, in theory, is supposed to lessen the competition. But evidence is still inconclusive. I have had birds of differing species (including Bluebirds and Tree Swallows) nesting alongside one another successfully. It’s darling when you approach a pair of boxes and have Mrs. Wren peek out of one hole while Mrs. Tree Swallow peeks out of the other – both wondering who is causing a disturbance in their neighborhood.

          Wasps … rubbing a bar of deodorant soap on the areas where they build nests (usually the ceiling of the nest cavity) is part of my spring nest box preparation ritual. It is supposed to deter wasps from building nests. They don’t like the smell. Most of my nest boxes are Gilbertson style made from PVC pipe. When wasps start to build a nest attached to the side of the cavity, I apply an ever-so-tiny dab of silicon on my finger tip and touch it to the spot in the box where they continue to attach their nest (after removing it). That usually does the trick. When I had a really objectionable wasp nest in a compartment beneath the nest cavity in a wooden Peterson box, I sprayed it with a non-toxic, earth-friendly, people-friendly, pet-friendly cleaning solution containing melaleuca oil. The plant oil coats insects and gets rid of them. In this case, the wasps were not actually in the nesting cavity of the box and did not seem to be bothering the birds. But the nest was becoming frighteningly large and the wasps were agressive. I didn’t want the insects to get too comfortable in that nice, protected space they found.

        • The Birding Bunch says:

          Thank you for the info about wasps. We’ll give the soap a try next spring. Since we began birding, we have actually viewed bugs a little more favourably and I’ve read wasps can do a great job with garden pests, so I do not necessarily want to kill them, just keep them out of the boxes when birds would need to use them.

          I do not remember where we were birding, but there was a cluster of wasp boxes that some group maintained. For as many boxes as there were, and wasps, they never bothered us. We just didn’t get too close.

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