Updated: Feb 14, 2022
Purple Martins are known for their beautiful singing, penchant for eating unwanted insects and predictable migration schedules that herald the arrival of Spring. Perhaps it was a combination of these benefits that first inspired Native Americans to attract Purple Martins to their villages. Many tribes in the Southeastern U.S. hung clusters of hollowed out gourds for the birds to use as nesting sites. Whatever the reason, after hundreds of years of intentional management, in most parts of North America Purple Martins have become entirely dependent on humans for supplying them with nesting cavities.
Become a Landlord
More than one million people in North America are Purple Martin landlords. Being a landlord means putting up housing designed to attract this insectivore, and then actively managing the site. The landlord’s job includes helping the colony care for fledglings by making sure that nests are kept free of parasites, rescuing injured nestlings and preventing invasion by competing species and predators.
Although this is a serious hobby, the rewards are incalculable. The enjoyment of surrounding yourself with these beautiful creatures will delight you. Once you have established a colony, you will most likely be visited every year for as long as you maintain your site. And you’ll know that you are helping Purple Martins to prosper.
This is the first in a series of articles designed to teach the basics of Purple Martin management. In this issue, we will discuss what you can do now to prepare for when the Purple Martins next return. By getting ready now, you will have a better chance of attracting them to your yard before they select a nesting site for the season.
Martins are Finicky Tenants
To get started as a Purple Martin landlord, you must first choose the right housing. Martins are extremely particular about where they will nest. Additionally, landlords need periodically to access the individual nesting compartments, so it is important to select a house that you can comfortably lift and access.
There are two types of housing: a conventional house and a hollow gourd. Most houses offer multiple nesting cavities. The minimum number of nesting cavities you should provide is four, but more is better. By offering both houses and gourds, you increase your chances of attracting a breeding pair.
Conventional housing can be made of wood or aluminum. Aluminum houses are lighter weight and usually easier to maintain. If you select a conventional house, make sure that it has a non continuous porch or a porch divider to prevent older nestlings from entering neighboring compartments and stealing food from younger broods.
Gourds are Good
Gourds can be made of either natural materials or plastic. Gourds offer the advantage of being able to swing in the wind, which Purple Martins love and their predators and competitors dislike. However, Martins will abandon their gourd if it is allowed to swing so that it strikes another object. Gourds offer a larger cavity than conventional houses, something else Martins like. Another advantage is a lack of common porches that connect entrance holes. The gourd’s disadvantage is that it can be hard to access unless equipped with screw-off access doors.
Martins prefer their nesting cavities to be seven inches wide by 6 inches high by 12-inches deep. The minimum cavity size is 6 inches wide by 6 inches high and 6 inches deep. Entrance holes must be circular with a diameter ranging between 1-7/8 inches to 2-3/8 inches, and 2-1/8 inches being ideal. We told you they were picky!
In part 2 of this article, we will cover how and where to locate your Purple Martin house.
Note: Additional sources for information on Purple Martins include the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Purple Martin Conservation Association, the Audubon Society and various wild bird watching organization.
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