How to attract and house Purple Martins

February 8, 2010

Perhaps no other North American bird has a more interesting association with humans than the Purple Martin. As early as the 1800’s, it was discovered that Native Americans had been providing the birds with hollowed out gourds to attract them to their dwellings. Martins were useful in driving off vultures, small hawks and crows from the vicinity. And not having access to bug-spray, it’s possible that  Native Americans also appreciated the birds’ voracious insect-eating appetites!  They also have a lovely, cheerful voice! (Click the link to hear!)

Martins are a member of the swallow family. They’re insect eaters and won’t eat seed at your feeders.  But providing housing for Martins is very important to the success of this bird. Perhaps because of the safety of being near humans, and the success of nesting gourds, Martins began to prefer nesting in close proximity to us and using man-made housing over natural cavities. Now Martins use man-made housing exclusively and nest near their human benefactors.

Attracting Purple Martins, caring for them, and ensuring their success can be a lot of work, but if you’re serious about becoming a Purple Martin landlord, it will be some of the most rewarding birding you’ll experience. Here is some basic information on how to get started!

The most important consideration for Martins is a proper habitat. Without it, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to attract these birds. The ideal spot for a Martin house would be a large, flat, open area, approximately 100 feet or less from your own house and near water source. Martins are strictly insect eaters and need open spaces to spot and dive for prey. Trees harbor predators like hawks and owls and impede the Martin’s flight, so Martins won’t nest in wooded areas.

Martins live and nest together in “colonies” consisting of many birds. The next consideration in attracting and maintaining Martins is providing housing that will accomodate the colony.  When Martins begin to return from their winter migration, they are preceded by a “lead scout”. This is the bird that will decide if the housing arrangements you have provided are acceptable   The best Martin houses are white, aluminum, double or triple-decker affairs with many separate “apartments”. They’re set on a pole about 15 feet high. Most Martin houses either come with a pole or you can purchase a pole specifically made for the house you choose. Martins will also use plastic gourds to nest in.

Click to see Martins nesting in gourds on YouTube

Duncraft offers an excellent selection of Martin houses and pole options that are time-tested to be attractive to Martins, are easy to clean and maintain, and pole options that make accessing houses a breeze. When it comes to attracting Martins to your yard, there’s no point in reinventing the wheel!  And Duncraft also offers a pre-assembled Martin house. So, if you’re not handy, and dread figuring out all the pieces and screws, nuts and bolts it takes to assemble most aluminum martin houses, this could be the perfect option for you.

New martin houses must be put up very early in the spring so that “lead scout” will spot it as the birds return north.  Most houses are equipped with door plugs to keep out invasive house sparrows and starlings that arrive earlier in spring than martins do. You can track the martin’s journey north on the Purple Martin Society’s website. It will tell you when the birds are arriving in your area so you can remove the door plugs from the house.  You’ll still have to be very diligent in keeping these birds out of your houses by removing any nests they begin to build there.

Don’t be discouraged if martins don’t occupy your house at first. Often it takes a few years for the right colony to find your house and settle in. Some people try Purple Martin decoys placed on the house help create the appearance of a nesting colony and may help attract new martins. But once martins begin to nest in your house, they will be back year after year.

If you’re ready to start attracting Martins, there are lots of excellent on-line resources to answer your questions and get you involved in the Martin community. Here are a few:  The Purple Martin Society, The Purple Martin Conservation Association, and The Nature Society.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Beverly J. Cotis February 12, 2010 at 11:32 am

I’ve had two Martin houses for the past four years………….and yet NO occupance. Both are measured heights of 10′ and 12’…………on a glide free path at least 100 yards from woods and tree lines.. Definitely in an area where Martins exist. Back yard has four gourds……..front yard a house with 12 units. I live 1 mile from two lakes……..in Sparta, New Jersey. What can I do this year to attract the Martin’s? We do have bird feeder in the yard. Do they discourage the Martin’s?

R. Brune February 15, 2010 at 4:08 pm

Hi Beverly,
Not sure if bird feeders in the yard would keep Martins away. I do know that it’s sometimes not easy to attract them. I’ve never even seen one myself. Some people have good luck using Martin “decoys” and putting them on the houses before the scouts show up. We don’t sell them anymore, but I’m sure you could find them on-line. Any Martin Landlords out there have any answers for Beverly?

Birdchick February 16, 2010 at 3:37 pm

Martins are tough. Sometimes it can take over 5 years for nearby martins to accept a new box in the hood (and sometimes it can take only a few months).

Have you tried playing the “dawn song” tapes to attract them during migration? Somestimes that combined with decoys works really well.

Are you keeping the house sparrows out? If house sparrows get in, the martins rarely stand a chance.

dee obrien February 17, 2010 at 11:41 am

I have a question, that others may have too. can you house bluebirds in close proximinty to purple martins?

R. Brune April 7, 2010 at 3:15 pm

Grapefriends…. went and read your article. Loved it! Gonna put it on our Facebook. Thanks!

W Leigh July 15, 2010 at 1:34 pm

Only man-made houses? HA! They nest in everything. Where my uncle works (an auto-repair shop), there are Martins in spaces in ceiling, holes in the wall, and even in the parts cars. My uncle said he had to drive a few off one time in order to get a transmission out.

Grant July 18, 2010 at 10:18 am

Recently I put up a new Martin house. A home about 5 blocks away has a successful colony so I decided to see if I could entice some of the overflow to my area. The Martins have found my house and will sore and “talk” to each other in flight but have only landed for a few seconds at a time. They look in the house but ly off. They do this each morning and most evenings. Should I try decoys so they are comfortable or be patient?
One drawback is there is a tree about 30′ or so from my house. The other sides are wide open with no obstructions.
Suggestions???

Eileen Smith February 5, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Like Dee, I’m also wondering if the Purples will harm bluebirds? I have a lot of bluebirds in my yard and doing my bets to protect these gentle giants.

Louis King February 8, 2012 at 10:36 am

Beverly. Just don’t quit. I’ve been trying at this house for thirty five years. If one quits, they’ll be out of the game.
W. Leigh. I’m betting what your uncle has are European Starlings. Do they have an iridescent color? Black, splotches of White, and Purple, depending on the way the sun shines on them? Do they have Yellow Legs, and Bills? If so, they are European Starlings, an imported (from England in the 1800s) species that will KILL Purple Martins, Blue Birds, Tree Swallows, and any other NATIVE species that nests in a box. They are Definitely NOT Purple Martins. Get a good Bird ID Book, and see if I’m right. If I am, you’d be better off shooting the EUST (European Starlings.) If they are in fact Purple Martins (which I seriously doubt) you have a one of a kind colony. Lou Lowell, Mich.

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