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 bird’s 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 these birds is very important to their success. 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 Purple 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 accommodate 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 Purple 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 with 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 starlings and House Sparrows out of your houses by removing any nests they begin to build there, making it more inviting for sleek-bodied Purple Martins to nest.
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 to help create the appearance of a nesting colony which 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 these beautiful insect-eating birds, there are lots of excellent online resources to answer your questions and get you involved in the Martin community. The Purple Martin Society and The Purple Martin Conservation Association can help get you started.