Be a Good Bird Landlord With a Purple Martin House

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

Why Purple Martins Need Birdhouses

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

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 now 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 purple martin houses are now essential to martins’ survival.

An estimated 1 million purple martin landlords listen each spring for the chortling call of their summer tenants reappearing from the south. Martins can often be heard calling as they glide above forested areas in an attempt to attract younger adults to the colony. In summer, purple martin houses across the country are filled with adults ready to raise their young.

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How to Choose a Purple Martin House

“I’m new to attracting purple martins. Can you give me some guidance on choosing and setting up a birdhouse?” asks Birds & Blooms reader Cindy Phelps of Louisburg, North Carolina.

Birding experts Kenn and Kimberly write, “The abundance of choices for purple martins can be daunting. To get started, we recommend a house made of aluminum (painted white to reflect heat) or very thick white plastic, with at least 12 compartments. Wooden houses work, but they’re heavy, which is a drawback as the house should be mounted 12 to 18 feet above the ground. You need to be able to open each compartment individually for cleaning. For mounting, it’s best to have a sturdy pole with a pulley system so that the house can be easily raised and lowered.”

Each individual apartment should measure at least 6 x 6 x 6 inches. The entrance hole should measure 2 1/8 inches. The Purple Martin Conservation Association offers a wealth of information on attracting these birds.

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Where to Place a Purple Martin House

Purple martins are colony nesters, which means they nest in groups. Whether you choose gourds or an apartment-style model, place your purple martin houses in an open area that is 40 to 60 feet away from trees and at least 12 to 18 feet above the ground. Purple martins are one of the only birds that will tolerate swaying birdhouses.

“We put up a purple martin house last year, but had no takers. Is there anything we can do to help martins find it?” asks reader Judy Roberts of Graytown, Ohio.

Kenn and Kimberly say, “Purple martins are choosy, and attracting them to a new house can take time. Make sure the house is in an open area, not hemmed in by trees. Keep the entrance holes sealed during winter so house sparrows and starlings won’t move in. Open them only around the time when the martins are expected to return in spring. Keep the house up through late summer, even if it hasn’t attracted tenants yet. Young martins look in late summer to find sites for the next year.”

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Be a Good Purple Martin Landlord

purple martinSteve and Dave Maslowski
Purple martin

Just like monitoring bluebird houses, 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.

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Inside a purple martin house, the nest is a cup of grass, leaves, twigs, miscellaneous debris and usually some mud. Learn more about swallows nests and nesting habits.

“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 naturalist and nature writer Ken Keffer.

Next, learn how to identify and attract a tree swallow.

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Sources

  • purplemartin.org, the website of the Purple Martin Conservation Association
  • Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman, official birding experts for Birds & Blooms
  • Ken Keffer, naturalist and author

Sheryl DeVore
Sheryl DeVore is a science, nature, health and social issues writer, editor and educator. In addition to being an expert on wild birds, she has been studying plants, insects and other natural wonders for more than 25 years. Her byline has appeared in Birds & Blooms, the Chicago Tribune and the publications of the National Audubon Society and the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. DeVore has taught journalism classes at Northwestern University, as well as nature and bird writing classes and workshops for The Field Museum, The Nature Conservancy, the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Lake County Forest Preser.