Planning Your Purple Martin Bird House

The purple martin is a subtly majestic bird, a member of the swallow family native to North America and marked by glossy steel blue and black feathers that can seem to become a colorful shade of purple in the right light, hence their name. While still small, they are larger than most swallows. They are particularly renowned for their speed and agility in flight. They are also known for diving towards their housing from above at great speeds with their wings tucked. This habit of theirs makes the design style of the martin house a bit more complicated.

Their habitat reaches throughout the temperate regions of North America, with their breeding grounds being on the eastern edge of the United States, though they have also been found in other parts of North America. The distribution of the purple martin is considered spotty as they are close to being considered an endangered species.  Totally dependent on human-provided housing.  And constantly battling with European starlings and sparrows for the same nests.  Without proper nesting places put up around the country, the martins would suffer a severe population decline.  They would all but disappear where once they had lived in great numbers.

In an effort to help keep martins from becoming endangered, we humans need to provide adequate housing and breeding spaces while keeping in mind thier needs.  This can at times be a difficult effort. A purple martin bird house is generally made of wood or aluminum or they also love plastic gourds.  This housing is generally supplied by concerned organizations trying to keep the species healthy and happy.  Legend holds that this practice goes back some centuries, reaching back into the days before European colonization, when Native Americans would place hollowed out gourds in an effort to get them to nest in nearby spaces.  As such, today most martin populations live near human population centers where human conservationists have established houses for them.

Your job as a landlord is to keep a constant watch on the nest as the  more aggressive birds like the European starling and house sparrow will attack purple martins, particularly hatchlings, trying to occupy the existing nests. It is nearly a constant effort, but without it, some fear the martin would disappear from the eastern United States. Out in the western edge of the continent, martins will often make use of natural cavities, such as holes in trees made by woodpeckers or inside of the hollow parts of the saguaro cactus.  After the nesting season they begin the long journay back to the Amazon basin during the winter, where its winter range extends into Ecuador and the Andean foothills.

In terms of diet, martins feed largely on flying insects, and are fairly good at preying on even the quickest insects, though contrary to wide held presumptions, they do not prey on mosquitos as they fly too low for that to be an option. On the brighter side, they do feed on invasive fire ants, further increasing their worth in the conservation of North America’s natural world.

If you’ve never experienced being around a martin colony you’ll enjoy this video.  This colony is all nesting in gourds.