You could call the Purple Martin the “dog” of the birding world. Why you ask? The largest member of the swallow family has come to depend on people and we treasure their friendship as well – You might even consider them man’s second best friend!
You can spot the dark purple males and the brown colored females by their unique, acrobatic flight. It’s that amazing flight and their natural ability to keep insects at bay that have made people want to attract them for hundreds of years. We want them around, and they need us around. While most Purple Martins in the western United States still nest the natural way in tree cavities, Purple Martins in the eastern part of the country nest almost exclusively in manmade houses.
This switch from natural nesting places to manmade homes was caused by the need to survive in an ever increasingly difficult environment. Things were going well between humans and this dark purple insect eater until 1890. That’s when an American businessman got the idea to bring every species of bird mentioned in a Shakespeare play to the United States. Eugene Schieffelin, a drug manufacturer, brought the first European Starlings and European House Sparrows to New York and let them loose. They flourished in this country, but their presence hurt the Purple Martin. These European natives compete for the same territories. The starlings also invade the nests of Purple Martins, often killing the fledglings.
In the early 1800’s, it seemed everyone wanted to attract Purple Martins. While some people built houses from wood or metal, others chose gourds like those used by Native Americans of the time. The houses were so popular in the 1800’s that James Audubon is quoted as saying that he often chose an inn by the look of the Purple Martin houses on the property. His thinking was that the better the landlord kept his Purple Martin houses, the better he kept his inn.
Even today, martins are so beloved that something as simple as their annual migrations attract attention. With flocks numbering in the thousands, their migration groups cover so much air space you can see them on weather radar. There are numerous festivals throughout the country that celebrate the event. Probably the most notable thing that contributes to people’s intense fascination with this amazing creature is its unique and memorable flight marked by quick turns and sudden dives. Purple Martins feast on a diet of nothing but insects and they love catching bugs like dragonflies, flies, and bees mid-flight. It’s an amazing display of agility to see Purple Martins skim the surface of lakes to grab a few bugs and take a quick bath. It’s no wonder that people have come to depend on the Purple Martin for entertainment and a natural insecticide.
If you want to attract Purple Martins to your home, you’ll need to do some research. Here are a few things to think about:
One, consider how you will keep nesting boxes safe from predators. Landlords of Purple Martin houses often safeguard them with things like electrified poles, starling traps, and sometimes cages around the houses.
Two, think about whether you have the time and energy to clean out the houses each year so they will return to nest again and again.
Three, if you use insecticides and herbicides on your property, consider whether you could give them up for the safety of your new tenants who will become dependent on the natural foods available in your yard.
The Purple Martin is a beautiful bird with an amazing flight and an uncanny ability to keep the insects from taking over. The relationship between Purple Martins and people is a unique one in the birding world. It seems the more they need us, the more we want to care for them. For more information about Purple Martins, visit www.purplemartin.org. The site has all kinds of helpful advice about becoming a landlord and helping to conserve the Purple Martin population.
Here are a couple of videos we found that you might enjoy.
The link below shows you how to make a Purple Martin house from a gourd.
This link shows you the history and mystery of Purple Martins. It’s an excellent video documentary done by National Public Radio.
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Cole’s Wild Bird Products is a family-owned company that distributes wild bird feed and suet products. The company is known for offering the highest quality products on the market. Cole’s also specializes in chile infused seed products designed to make your feeder a bird’s only “hot” spot. Cole’s started in the garage of mom and pop entrepreneurs Richard and Nancy Cole back in the early 1980’s. Today it distributes to retailers nationwide. Cole’s is located in the metro Atlanta area. For more information, visit www.ColesWildBird.com.