How to Identify and Attract a Purple Martin
Purple martins nest in colonies of six to eight pairs or more. Learn what these birds look like, what they eat and where to spot them.
What Does a Purple Martin Look Like?
The purple martin is the largest swallow in North America, and arguably the most popular. Males have dark purpleish black feathers all over their bodies. The females are paler in color, with dark heads and tails, and gray or white feathers on their throats and bellies. They measure about 8 inches in length with a wingspan of 18 inches. 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.
Nest and Eggs
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.
A pair constructs a nest of plant materials before female lays four to five white eggs. Females incubate the eggs for 15 to 16 days. Both adults raise and feed the young, which fledge in about 30 days. The baby birds then beg their parents for food for several more weeks.
The secret to attracting purple martins is to set up multichambered nest boxes near open areas for them to raise their young. Place a purple martin house or several gourd houses high in the air. Inside the martin house, their nest is a cup of grass, leaves, twigs, miscellaneous debris and usually some mud.
Creating a purple martin neighborhood is an old practice. Precolonial Native Americans hung up empty gourds for the birds to use. Today, purple martins in the eastern U.S. nest almost exclusively in birdhouses.
Purple martins nest in colonies of six to eight pairs—well-established colonies can grow into the hundreds.
DID YOU KNOW? Purple martin houses need to be placed in the open and 15 to 20 feet high.
What Do Purple Martins Eat?
Violet-hued purple martins are entirely aerial insectivores, so they won’t stop at backyard feeders. They rarely land on the ground. Martins even drink on the wing by flying low over ponds and skimming their bills across the surface. Your best bet is to grow more native plants that attract bugs for them to eat.
Cliff swallow vs barn swallow: Spot the differences.
Purple Martin Song
The purple martin’s song is a low-pitched warble. Martins can often be heard calling as they glide above forested areas in an attempt to attract younger adults to the colony.
Bird songs provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Learn how to identify and attract a tree swallow.
Range Map and Habitat
Look for these birds in open areas with water nearby. Purple martins are frequent summer visitors in the eastern states, and are rarely spotted out west.
Range maps provided by Kaufman Field Guides, the official field guide of Birds & Blooms.