February Bird of the Month: Purple Martin

February 10, 2014

If you see plastic gourds hung up in backyards, odds are that they’ve been erected for purple martins to use as nesting locations. But what you might not have known is that the practice of doing so dates back several centuries – Native Americans were actually doing the same thing before the Europeans arrived on the continent.

purplemartin-wpPurple martins are generally between 7-1/2 and 8 inches long, and they usually live for 5 to 7 years. The largest species of swallow in North America, they are black in color (females are slightly more gray) and possess a glossy blue sheen that easily distinguishes them from other birds and gives them their name.

The purple martin’s range covers all of the eastern United States as far west as Texas, although there have been sporadic sightings further toward the Pacific coast. They are monogamous by breeding season, although the breeding is usually done while part of a larger group and both the male and female may sporadically mate outside of their primary bond. As with many other birds, the courtship process is largely initiated by the male – he will advertise his availability to a female through song and displays of physical prowess and appearance.

Purple martins eat nearly exclusively insects, so it won’t do much good to attempt attracting them to your yard with any kind of bird food or bird feeders. In fact, they rarely even come to the ground in order to feed. Instead, they use their great speed, agility and diving ability to catch winged insects right out of the air. They will, however, gratefully show up in your backyard if you set up bird houses such as the Purple Martin Barn with Pole – purple martins like to nest in the aforementioned groups, and houses with multiple compartments are just what they’re looking for.

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