Be a Good Bird Landlord with a Purple Martin House

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Purple-hued swallows arrive just in time to select a new home for spring nesting season. Use a purple martin house to attract these beautiful birds.

Purple Martin houseJLFCapture/Getty Images
A pair of purple martins perch on their house

Why Purple Martins Need Houses

An estimated 1 million purple martin landlords listen each spring for the chortling call of their summer tenants reappearing from the south. Soon, purple martin houses across the country will be filled with adults ready to raise their young. Historically, purple martins nested in natural tree hollows, old woodpecker holes, and cliff crevices near water throughout most of the U.S. The birds continue to do so in the West, especially in saguaro cacti.

But in the eastern half of the country, purple martins nest almost exclusively in manmade boxes. Native Americans began the tradition thousands of years ago when they found that a hollow gourd placed in a tree was attractive to breeding bird pairs. Man-made houses are now essential to martins’ survival.

How to Choose a Purple Martin House

Purple martins are colony nesters, which means they nest in groups. Whether you choose gourd houses or an apartment-style birdhouse, offer six to 12 cavities. Purple martins are one of the only birds that will tolerate swaying birdhouses. Place the purple martin house in an open area that is 40 to 60 feet away from trees and at least 12 to 18 feet above the ground. The houses should be painted white, to reflect heat, and each apartment should measure at least 6 x 6 x 6 inches. The entrance hole should be 2 1/8 inches. Learn more requirements at purplemartin.org.

Here’s how to make a purple martin gourd house.

purple martin Steve and Dave Maslowski

What Do Purple Martins Look Like?

Male purple martins are black all over with bluish-purple reflections; the females are blackish from above and have sooty gray underparts; and young birds look like females but have whiter bellies. All martins have pointed wings and forked tails. That distinctive tail helps them catch flying insects, like dragonflies, as they fly about 100 to 200 feet in the air. Martins can often be heard calling as they glide above forested areas in an attempt to attract younger adults to the colony. These birds rarely land on the ground and even drink water while in flight. Learn to identify 8 types of swallows.

Purple Martin Nests and Eggs

The first birds to arrive in spring are often called scouts, but that’s a misnomer. As with many species that breed in North America but migrate to and from the tropics, the first to return are the older males on their way to claim last year’s nesting sites. Females and younger birds arrive later. In the Midwest, the northern part of the range, martins start to arrive as early as March. Then the search for the perfect home begins. Nests typically consist of grasses and twigs, with fresh green leaves added throughout the season. The female incubates three to six white eggs for 15 to 16 days. Both adults raise and feed the young, which fledge in about 30 days. The babies then beg their parents for food for several more weeks. Learn to identify bird eggs by color and size.

How to Be a Purple Martin Landlord

Being a purple martin landlord takes time and commitment. In summer, boxes must be kept free of non-native house sparrows. In late fall, boxes must be cleaned and closed. But it’s all worth the effort. Hosting purple martins means you’ll get to enjoy these feathered good neighbors during spring and summer before they fly the coop in fall.

“Purple martin houses are a hub of activity. It’s fascinating to watch purple martins come and go. I love to watch for the youngsters poking their heads out of the boxes,” says Ken Keffer, naturalist.

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Sheryl DeVore
Sheryl DeVore is a science, nature, health and social Issues writer, editor, educator and wild birds expert.