Purple Martins

Emily White

Look who’s wearing purple!

Every year, more than one million North Americans provide outdoor housing for one of nature’s sweetest, prettiest and most graceful songbirds – the purple martin. Today, east of the Rocky Mountains, purple martins, the largest member of the swallow family in North America, are the only bird species completely dependent on humans for supplying their nesting sites.

Martins spend the nonbreeding season in Brazil, then migrate thousands of miles to North America to nest. They can arrive and begin nesting as early as March, and as late as the end of June, anywhere in North America. In July and August, this year’s young will begin scouting for next year’s breeding sites.

Twelve thousand years ago, before the first humans arrived in the New World, martins would claim the abandoned nests of woodpeckers. West of the Rockies and in the deserts, most martins still do that today, but for the rest, it’s up to hobbyists to give them a home in the form of a single or multi-unit house, or a gourd system. It takes a big commitment to do this hobby right, but once you establish a colony of purple martins, you can have it forever.

Featherfields offers customers several housing options to attract martins including wooden or aluminum multi-unit houses. Natural, dried gourds are traditional, but the plastic ones can be easily cleaned and maintained. Our best selling aluminum house, which provides rooms for 12 families, features door plugs, subfloors and porch rails. The house includes a 15 foot pole with a pulley system that allows the house to glide up and down like a flag on a flagpole. That way, hobbyists can get to the house easily for cleaning and maintenance.

Non-native house sparrows and European starlings, introduced into this continent from Europe in the 1800’s, are two of the martin’s many enemies. House sparrows are aggressive and they’ll peck eggs and build their own nests right on top of a martin’s. Gourd systems that swing and sway help to deter a take-over by house sparrows. Also, because there is no perch or patio, gourds keep martins safer from predators such as owls and hawks. Houses need to be maintained on a weekly basis to keep out house sparrows or you’ll lose the colony.

The major reason people fail to attract these birds is that the placement of the housing is wrong. Hobbyists should place housing in the most open spot available, about 30 feet to 120 feet from human housing. Also, there should be no trees taller than the martin housing within 40 feet. Height of the housing can be anywhere from 10 feet to 20 feet, and bushes, shrubs and vines should be kept away from the pole.

This hobby is not for instant gratification, not everyone will be able to attract purple martins. With commitment, consistency and a little luck, though, you may be rewarded with a lifetime spent in the presence of the purple martin.

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