Purple Martins Need US

Did you know that the purple martins are the only bird species totally dependent on human supplied nest boxes?  If humans were to stop supplying martins with homes, then they would likely disappear altogether as an eastern bird! But their qualities make them one of the most pleasurable birds to have around, so it's no wonder they have been endeared and hosted by humans for centuries.

How did this curious relationship between Purple Martins and humans begin?  Long ago, Native American Indians began luring this beloved songbird by hanging gourds near their camps for them to nest in.  The martins proved to be beneficial as insect control, chased off crows and vultures from their crops, sounded alarms of approaching danger, provided music for the ear, and entertainment to watch.

The European colonists continued this type of tradition with bird houses, and today the martins are just as popular and sought after as ever.  Man saw the benefits in having the purple martins close, and they in turn reaped the benefits of being in close proximity to man. Over time this caused a complete tradition shift from their ancestral nesting behaviors, and formed a dependence on the bird houses man has provided for them for so long.

We are very fortunate to have large numbers of purple martins here in the Houston area!  Here are some benefits to consider in becoming a "landlord" to the Purple Martin:

  • Martins are quite friendly, preferring that their housing not be more than about 120 feet from human homes. Because of this long association with nurturing humans, a martin landlord can typically get within about six feet of a perched martin before it will flutter slightly farther away.
  • Martins have fascinating social behavior and they like to live and nest in groups, making them an entertaining delight to watch.
  • Martins are agile in-flight hunters, consuming vast quantities of insects, and parents may feed their nestlings up to 60 times per day!
  • They sing beautiful songs regularly in the morning.
  • They are compatible with all other types of native yard birds.
  • They remain incredibly faithful to their colony sites from one year to the next, often returning on the same date each year if it is still suitable. So once you attract a purple martin colony you've probably got them for life!

The first martin scouts arrive in Houston generally in mid-January from South America.  Nesting activities start in February.  Purple Martins rely solely on man-made houses for nesting.  They are the only bird species that supports a multi-million dollar housing industry, with no less than 5 major purple martin bird house manufacturers.  So there is no shortage of places to order purple martin houses from if you are interested in attracting a scout to begin a faithful colony.

There are two types of housing to choose when thinking of hosting purple martins: housesand gourds.   Both plastic and natural gourds (at least 10 strung up together) make the better option for martins, because research has shown they can result in higher reproductive success than with conventional houses.  As an additional bonus the gourds swing, which is something martins like, and predators don't.   But apartment-like bird houses are also very effective in attracting martins since they nest in colonies.

Ever hear of Martin Madness?  Every year around late July and early August the Purple Martins gather by the tens of thousands near the Starbucks at Willowbrook Mall, and also The Fountains Shopping Center in Stafford!  Who knows why they pick these locations to gather in masse to begin their migration back to South America.  However it's a spectacular phenomenon to witness, and dubbed Purple Martin Madness by it's host, The Houston Audubon Society.  Guests are encouraged to bring a chair and umbrella (for obvious, potentially messy reasons!), and watch the birds take flight around dusk.

*Follow our Facebook page for a reminder about Martin Madness event in the summer, info on other local events, and benefit from the free gardening tips all year long!

**For more detailed information about Purple Martins visit The Purple Martin Conversation Association website: www.purplemartin.org/