Clemson Extension Forestry and Wildlife

Preparing for Purple Martins

Purple martin (Progne subis). Vern Wilkins, Indiana University,
Purple martin (Progne subis). Vern Wilkins, Indiana University,

Being the largest swallow in North America, Purple Martins have always been an extremely popular bird among homeowners and birding enthusiasts. Native Americans would attract them by hollowing out gourds and hanging them for the purple martins to nest in. Nowadays, homeowners often spend a lot of their time and resources trying to attract these beautiful birds. Still, this practice is a lot older than you think.

Martins normally show up in the southern part of South Carolina in mid-to-late February; some folks even consider their arrival as the “true start of Spring.” Older males generally arrive earlier, often seeking their old nesting areas, while the late-arriving younger males seek new sites. After successfully nesting, purple martins migrate each year to South America (Brazil, Argentina, etc.), where they molt and grow new sets of feathers.

Instead of digging out their own nesting site, purple martins like to nest in cavities previously made by woodpeckers. This is called secondary cavity-nesting. Unfortunately, the introduction of exotic invasive species, such as the English house sparrow and starlings, has negatively impacted purple martins by creating competition for nesting sites. To combat this, homeowners build multi-room bird condos made of wood, plastic, or aluminum; hollowed-out gourds are also used.

Materials to build these houses, or even the homes themselves, can be found on many websites. You may even want to try growing your own bottle gourds if that is your preference.

Below are some tips for creating a high-functioning purple martin nesting site:

  • Locate your martin house at least 40 feet from trees and 30 feet from homes and other buildings.
  • Purple martins like to nest in groups, so try using either a cluster of gourds or an “apartment-style” system for your build.
  • Houses should be placed on poles 15-30 ft. tall.
  • It is essential to have the ability to raise and lower the house to clean and inspect the compartments.
  • Having a power line in the same area will allow them to gather and socialize.
  • Placing the nesting sites near open water sources has proven to be more beneficial.
  • Place the house where you can enjoy the view!


Parker Johnson, Cooperative Extension, Forestry and Wildlife Agent

This information is supplied with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement of brand names or registered trademarks by the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service is implied, nor is any discrimination intended by the exclusion of products or manufacturers not named. All recommendations are for South Carolina conditions and may not apply to other areas. 

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