Have Your Purple Martins Arrived Yet?

March 17, 2021

Around the Countryside
Have Your Purple Martins Arrived Yet?
Marion Barnes – Senior County Extension Agent
Clemson University

The Purple Martin may be America’s most wanted bird. Homeowners and birding enthusiasts spend a lot of time and resources to attract this beautiful song bird, which is also the most prominent member of the swallow family. Purple martins have been under human management longer than any other species in North America. Before Europeans arriving in the New World, Native Americans were enticing these desirable birds to nest in their villages by hanging hollowed-out gourds for them to nest in. As I travel around the county’s rural areas, I am always on the lookout for those white-painted gourds suspended from poles located on many rural properties. Although not as prevalent today, purple martin houses were common in most farms throughout our state and are increasing in popularity.

Purple martins are secondary cavity nesters, using hollow trees and cavities made by woodpeckers. Purple martins are just one of the many species which have been negatively impacted due to the shortages of natural nesting sites and competition for nesting sites from introduced exotic species like the English house sparrow and starlings. Many homeowners have tried to reverse this trend by erecting wooden, plastic, or aluminum multi-compartment bird condos or gourds for these birds.

Purple Martins are neo-tropic in nature, meaning they migrate south each year. They nest here in the North American hemisphere. After nesting is complete, they migrate to South America (Brazil, Argentina, and surrounding areas), where they molt and grow a new set of feathers. Martins generally begin showing up in the southern portion of our state in mid to late February. Many folks don’t consider it spring until the martins have arrived.

The older martins tend to return to their old nesting areas while young birds seek new ones. Meaning, once a house is used, it will likely continue to be used, and new houses will eventually be occupied as first-year martins seek nesting places. Males generally arrive earlier and select the nest site. Contrary to the old country legend, early arriving “scouts” are not checking to see if the environment is safe for returning birds but are the older, experienced martins arriving to begin nesting. Younger birds will soon follow.

Purple martins are monogamous for the breeding season. They construct their nest from twigs, weeds, dead leaves, coarse grasses, and other similar material. The female lays three to eight white eggs and incubates them for fifteen to eighteen days. Both parents feed and care for the young. Young martins will stay in the nest for three to four weeks before leaving and often returning to the area for a few days before their final departure.

According to experts, purple martins will feed and drink only while in flight. These birds have a very diverse diet. They will consume grasshoppers, dragonflies, stink bugs, midges, Japanese beetles, moths, butterflies, wasps, flying ants, and more. Martins are not heavy consumers of mosquitoes as legend has it. In a study conducted by the Purple Martin Conservation Association headquartered in Pennsylvania, researchers failed to find a single mosquito in their diet over the seven-year study period.

Purple martins will nest in a variety of houses. In the past, it was common to see bottle gourds hanging from a tall pole with cross-arms or old wagon wheel, but plastic gourds, wooden or aluminum apartment-style commercially made housing are more common today. You can purchase martin houses or build your own from construction plans found on many websites. Some folks may even want to try growing their own bottle gourds.

Location, location, location; this old adage in the real-estate business also holds true in attracting and keeping martins. In general, martins prefer relatively open spaces. If possible, locate your martin house at least forty feet from trees and thirty feet from houses and other buildings. Keep in mind that these birds like to nest in groups, which is why a cluster of gourds or apartment systems works well. Purple martins like to socialize, so having a power line in the area will give them a place to gather. Putting houses near open water has also been found to be beneficial. Purple martin houses should be placed on poles fifteen to thirty feet tall, according to some experts. One of the most important aspects of any martin house is having the ability to raise and lower the house to clean and inspect the compartments. And last but not least, place the house where you can enjoy viewing the martins. For more information on attracting backyard wildlife, contact your local Clemson Extension office.

Information for this article was taken in part from the University of Georgia’s Purple Martin Circular 977.

Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service offers its programs to people of all ages, regardless of race, color, gender, religion, national origin, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or family status and is an equal opportunity employer


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