Perhaps no other North American bird has a more interesting association with humans than the Purple Martin. As early as the 1800's, it was discovered that Native Americans had been providing the birds with hollowed out gourds to attract them to their dwellings. Martins were useful in driving off vultures, small hawks and crows from the vicinity, and it's possible that the Native Americans also appreciated the birds' voracious insect-eating appetites!
Over time, perhaps because of the safety of being near humans, and the success of the provided nesting gourds, Martins began to prefer nesting in close proximity to us and using man made housing over the natural cavities they had used previously. Now Martins use man made housing exclusively and are very particular about wanting to nest near their human benefactors.
Because Purple Martins have become so dependent upon us for their survival, it's important to realize that attracting and maintaining a Purple Martin colony is not for everyone. It does require commitment and also a fair amount of work. But, for the serious birder, there is likely no more satisfying an endeavor than becoming a Purple martin landlord, for without such dedicated people, the Purple Martin is unlikely to continue to survive. So, if you have been successful aiding the nesting efforts of other birds, such as bluebirds or swallows, perhaps you are ready for the ultimate challenge;attracting and caring for a Purple Martin colony.
There are a number of considerations that you will want to review before taking the big step. These would be habitat, housing, predator control, and parasite control. The Purple Martin Society of North America is an excellent source of information about these birds and their requirements. Their site is a "must read" for anyone considering attracting a colony.
So, perhaps you've read a little about Martins at this point and you've made a decision; you want to become a landlord! But first, let's see if you have the right spot to be successful in attracting Martins, because the most important consideration is a proper habitat. In other words, location, location, location! The ideal spot for a Martin house would be in the center of a large open area, approximately 100 feet or less from your own dwelling and in fairly close proximity to a water source. Martins are strictly insect eaters and need open spaces to spot and dive for prey. Tall trees will harbor predators like lawks and owls, so Martins won't nest near wooded areas. Please read "Top Ten Mistakes with Purple Martins", an article that will keep you from making the most common mistakes regarding martin housing and placement.
OK, so you have a great location and now you're ready to choose your Martin house. Today, man-made housing for Martins is available in many forms, from the gourd variety, both natural and plastic, to multilayed aluminum housing with up to six compartments per floor, as well as some very pretty wooden housing. When choosing among your housing options, be sure to think about how easy the compartments will be to clean, how the house will be raised or lowered and if future expansion is possible, should it become necessary. Choose the advantages that are most important to you. If you don't mind getting up on a twenty foot ladder to check the nests, then you won't need a telescoping pole. If you just have to have that beautiful wooden house, remember that yearly cleaning will be a lot more difficult than with an aluminum house, and it will probably need to be painted at least every two years. The Purple Martin Conservation Association offers in-depth information on housing.
Make Songbird Garden your housing resource! Songbird Garden offers an excellent selection of martin houses and pole options. We have taken care to offer housing that has been time tested to be attractive to Martins, easy to clean and maintain, along with pole options that make accessing houses a breeze.
So, with your housing up and fingers crossed, lets look at the amazing migration patterns of Martins, so you can be on the watch if they decide to investigate your offering. Martins are the largest member of the swallow family and can be found distributed throughout the United States and Canada, except for some areas of the Rocky Mountains. Wintering in South America, primarily in the Amazon Basin, Brazil and northern Bolivia, Martins begin returning to the United States through three major migration paths. As of this writing, Martins have already been spotted in the southern states! The Purple Martin Society has a section on their website where you can view sightings that are updated daily.
Interestingly, colonies do not migrate together. The first birds of the colonies to arrive are the "Scouts". These are mature birds who have already established a nesting location to which they return year after year. When they arrive at their location, they re-establish and defend their territory, waiting for last year's fledglings (called sub-adults) to arrive approximately four weeks later, when they will begin to mate and build their nests. Contrary to a common belief, the scouts do not leave the location to go back and retrieve the younger birds. Many of the sub-adult birds will return to last year's location, but some will stop along the way and establish a new colony in a new place. These are the birds that will settle in your location. That's why it's important to keep your house closed up until well after the scouts arrive. Otherwise, your housing will be populated with starlings, sparrows and other birds which arrive much earlier. When the sub-adult Martins finally arrive, they will pass by housing if it's already occupied. Almost all Martin houses come with special door plugs for this purpose.? It's a little "hit or miss", so don't be discouraged if you don't get a colony the very first year.
Once you do attract Martins, your job as a landlord begins. This will entail protecting the birds from predators, and monitoring the health of the nests and young. This is truly a labor of love, but it is the reason our Purple Martins continue to survive. Martins can be subject to raids from raccoons, snakes, opossums, chipmunks and many other animals. There are special predator proof baffles available you can use for your poles. .
Finally, you will want to keep your colony healthy. Monitoring the nestlings will alert you to any parasites that may have infested the nest. For the most part, a light infestation of lice, fleas, mites or martin blowfly is pretty normal in most bird's nests. However, if the young have been weakened by other conditions, such as cold and damp or lack of feed, these parasites can be deadly. In dire situations, you may even have to replace the nest. The Purple Martin Preservation Alliance has an excellent on-line article on parasites and how to control them. It's pretty graphic, so be forewarned! We did say that caring for Martins was a labor of love!
By now, you probably know more about Martins than you ever thought you would! Are you ready for the challenge? As a good Martin landlord you will likely encounter many challenges, but your reward will be a healthy, thriving colony that will be back each spring in greater and greater numbers, with their striking plumage, lovely song and soaring flight. We guarantee you'll be hooked for life, and in the process you will truly make a difference in the future of these wonderful birds! So, talk to other landlords, join a few on-line forums, continue to expand your knowledge and enjoy your new hobby. And don't forget, when your birds return next year to raise the next generation...you'll be a grandparent!