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Purple Martin
(House Martin) 

Order: Passeriformes
Family: Hirundinidae
Genus: Progne
Species: subis

La. passer  sparrow, small bird
La. forma  form, kind, species
La. hirundo  a swallow
Gr. Prokne  mythological King
     Tereus, Philomela, and
     Prokne were turned into
     birds, a hoopoe, a
     nightingale, and a swallow
La. subis  a kind of bird


 

 
 
Purple Martin, R. Bruce Horsfall, A Year with the Birds, Alice Ball, 1916
 
R. Bruce Horsfall  

 
Largest swallow, about eight inches long with a twelve inch wingspan. Dark steel-blue except for brownish black wings. Female is brownish above and grayish underneath.  Long thin speedy wings, moderately forked tail. 

Purple Martins inhabit most of temperate North America from Mexico throughout the eastern U.S., north to Newfoundland, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, in parts of the southwest and along the Pacific coast. Winters in northern South America.
 

       USGS Purple Martin Map
 

Builds nests of twigs, leaves, grasses, feathers, odd rubbish and sometimes mud, formerly in natural or abandoned tree hollows and rock crevices, now mostly in the popular martin houses or other nest boxes, gourds and a few in roof eaves.
 

Lays three to five white eggs, which hatch after about two weeks incubation and young leave the nest in about another three weeks.

Scatters out over the country catching flying insects in graceful almost falcon like flight, each parent returning to feed their young about one hundred times between sunup and sundown. 
Purple Martins, Allan Brooks, Birds of America, 1917
  
Allan Brooks
    
Social birds, greeting each other gurgling and chattering, even visiting each other's nests.  Martins need monitoring and special care. Mobs of English Sparrows sometimes drive the weaker colonies from their homes which is why Martin houses should contain several homes or multiple nest boxes should be mounted.
 
Colonies often just disappear because they are driven away by pests or because they are attracted to a nicer Martin house. They feed on available flying insects depending on the area and seasonal fly hatches, moths, dragonflies, butterflies, horse flies, and deer flies. gonflies, butterflies, horse flies, and deer flies. They typically fly and feed low in cooler, cloudy weather and higher on warm sunny days. They migrate south about the middle of August in large flocks. In southern U.S. they return as early as February and in Canada as late as May.
 
Purple Martins, F.C. Hennessey, Birds of Western Canada, P.A. Taverner, 1926

 
F. C. Hennessey
  

The preponderance of Purple Martins now nest in artificially provided structures although there are rare reports of pairs or colonies nesting in their historical homes in cliff nooks, tree hollows and woodpecker holes, usually in the west.

Their popularity and reliance on martin houses has created one of the great North American Pastimes: attracting colonies of dozens of martins to apartment like birdhouses mounted high in wide open backyards. 

Attracting & Caring for Purple Martins

 

Enticing colonies to occupy martin houses is so competitive enthusiasts utilize the latest research and tips - white paint to keep houses cool in the hot sun, room sizes, entrance hole sizes, specially designed holes shaped to deter intruders, railings to protect the new born from falling, guards against crawling and flying predators and more. Martins live in groups of single houses (gourds are popular) and houses with as many as 30 rooms although they seem to prefer somewhere in between the two extremes. Two or three apartment buildings do nicely for large colonies.

Purple Martin, R. Bruce Horsfall, Educational Bird Leaflets, 1913

R. Bruce Horsfall

 

 

Purple Martin House Design

Our only martin house design: An unfinished concept

 

 

 
Most martins and their broods return to the colony they occupied, were raised in, or to another near by.
Opening up rooms too early in spring invites sparrow and starling mobs  (Some martin houses come with door stops.)   Landlords of existing colonies learn when it's best.  Use (roughly) the map below of migration data superimposed over the USGS Breeding Bird Survey map.  

 

 

Those attempting to attract new colonies should watch for martins and open rooms after the first martin sighting, continuing to watch closely for the unwanted hoards which must be dealt with immediately. 
 

Don't be discouraged if sparrow or starling nests need to be removed repeatedly.  You will discourage them.  You will win. 

Males returning to formerly occupied homes  immediately renew their claim.

The female selects the room and both female and male build the nest two or three weeks later.

Occasionally males fight over already claimed rooms although the first claim usually provides enough steadfastness to overcome intruders.

Purple Martins, Allan Brooks, Birds of Canada, P.A. Taverner, 1934

Allan Brooks

 
Martins need care.  It's a job.  Telescoping poles, door stops, starling resistant entrances and removable nest trays make the chores much easier.   Easier means less likely to cause damage, quicker, safer, and reduced burden means the landlord is more likely to continue good responsible practice.

Metal poles, pole guards help prevent predators from climbing poles.

Rooms should be at least 7 inches cubed and deeper if raptors are a threat.  Where owls are numerous door guards and extra deep rooms help prevent them from reaching into rooms.  If a room is nine or ten inches deep, Martins will place the nest in the back furthest from the door.  Paint houses white.

Some people provide sticks, straw, mud and other materials for their martins.  Some even improve nests built by young inexperienced parents making sure floors are covered.

If mites infest nests they will feed on the chicks blood  - clean and replace the nests and  you might be saving their lives.  If an egg is broken, remove it to avoid unsanitary conditions.

 

Barn Swallow and Purple Martin F. Schuyler Mathews, The Book of Birds for Young People, 1921

Barn Swallow and Purple Martin, F. Schuyler Mathews
 

 

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