Birds Who Tease: Purple Martins

Three Purple Martins were checking the place out this year.

Three Purple Martins were checking the place out this year.

Bluebird babies fledged this week from their nest high up in the Purple Martin house. Next day, the Purple Martins (Progne subis) arrived. I guess it was a sublet and the lease was up for the bluebirds.

They fly round and round checking if there is enough room for easy landing

They fly round and round checking if there is enough room for easy landing

Purple Martins are a picky bunch. They zoom round and round and round some more. They peer into the various apartments in the Purple Martin house. They land, they take off, and then they zoom around and start all over again.

I chose the location for the martin house after doing some research at the Purple Martin Conservation Association.  It is important to research the habitat condition needed for any species you are trying to attract.

Up high, over a great feeding ground.

Up high, over a great feeding ground.

For Purple Martins, the nestbox has to be high up, 10-20 feet. They like housing with apartments of specific sizes. I purchased a house and the pole from a birding site on the web that was specifically made for Purple Martins.

Open air space, CHECK

Open air space, CHECK

You need open air space around the box, about 30-120 ft from human housing. Mine is about 80 ft from both my next door neighbor’s house and also from mine. It is about 30-40 ft from the house behind me.

Since my lot now has a lot of trees, I had to figure out whether or not my place was appropriate habitat. Since my neighbors have no trees, I was able use their “airspace” as a good portion of the open space necessary for the martins to fly in.  It is suggested that no trees taller than the martin housing be within 40 feet, preferably 60 feet.  With my pond area as the available free space on my side of the fence it seems like it should be adequate.

I’ve added decoys so they think their friends found it THE place to live.

I’ve added decoys so they think their friends found it THE place to live.

I watched with interest for quite a while, wondering if THIS would be the year they will nest. Last year when they arrived, the bluebirds had set up shop and still hadn’t fledged. Momma and Poppa bluebird sent the martins on their way in short order.

Last year the bluebirds sent them on their way

Last year the bluebirds sent them on their way

This year, with the bluebirds gone from the scene, I had the most hope of any year. They have teased me past years. One year they taunted me by bringing nesting materials and briefly started to build.

I don't know, Harry, the rooms seem a little small.

I don’t know, Harry, the rooms seem a little small.

Unfortunately, I think they once again have toyed with my emotions. The day after the trio of scouts was going over the place with a fine toothed comb, only a single bird was performing the aerial act.

Now, two days later, no one was to be found, although it was an overcast rainy sort of day, so perhaps they are sheltering in place elsewhere.

Purple Martins, members of the swallow family, are monogamous. They live and nest in colonies and often return to the same housing year after year. They are a migratory species and breed in many states in the eastern half of the United States.

purplemartinsApr2014AI’m told not to be discouraged when they pass my place up. It is just a matter of time when some subadults (birds born the prior year) will break off from their pack and start up a new colony. It says they can nest through June, so I’ll keep the faith that some stragglers will have no place else to call home.

Hopefully they won’t be put off by the fact that the bluebirds were here. I hate to block off any nesting site that the bluebirds are willing to use so I doubt I will ever close up the compartments until the Martins arrive. Flycatchers and other cavity nesting birds can also take up housing and while I would really like a colony of Purple Martins, I also feel an obligation to let other native cavity nesting birds make use of any habitat they are drawn to.

Beautiful iridescent shades of color

Beautiful iridescent shades of color

The only birds I would remove would be European Starlings and House Sparrows since neither of those species is native.  Should I luck out and the martins claim this as their home,  in future years I would block the entries to even native species while I await their return.

Their diet consists exclusively of flying insects that they catch “on the wing”. Although it is often used in promoting the species, they, in fact, rarely eat mosquitoes. Dragonflies, mayflies, midges, butterflies, moths, diptera, beetles, grasshoppers, stink bugs and many others are preferred.  Don’t use any pesticides; let the Martins do the pest control for you.

Predators of Purple Martins include snakes, raccoons, squirrels, owls, hawks and crows.  Keep vegetation to a minimum at the base of the pole to avoid giving predators a boost.

Each year I get more hopeful. This year three showed up to scout around.

Each year I get more hopeful. This year three showed up to scout around.

So, now I keep on Purple Martin watch and enjoy their antics for the brief time they house shop here. At least the number of scouts has increased so I am hopeful. Time will tell.

© 2014, Loret T. Setters. All rights reserved. This article is the property of We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    I’m rooting for you! You will have martins, you will have martins … I always envy the people around here who live on the river with full martin houses. What joy it must be to watch them feed at dusk over the river. There is a fully established martin house next to a restaurant we sometimes frequent in the summer and I love to watch them while dining myself! Their flight maneuvers are truly amazing.

  2. Cindy says

    Decoy? Maybe they don’t want a manequin on the porch ;-) Or maybe the bluebirds did not tidy up after they left? It does look like a lovely roost..hopefully you’ll have a full house soon!


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