July 29, 2010
Purple Martins and People
An alliance with purpose and pleasure
by Debra and Marcus Firmani
Purple martins dazzle with their windswept form, speed, and grace. Their long association with humans began by chance when they tried nesting in drinking gourds Native Americans had hung to dry.
By driving away hawks, vultures, and crows, and consuming flying insects, they became welcome neighbors and were invited back with more gourds for nesting.
As the martins’ nesting success increased, so, too, did their inclination to return, cultivating human affection for them. Now over one million people in North America provide housing for purple martins.
- East of the Rockies, scarcity of natural cavities led to martins nesting almost solely in artificial housing. In the West, most nest in old woodpecker cavities or rocky crevices.
- Martins start arriving from wintering grounds in the Amazon Basin in mid-January in Florida, or as late as May 1 in Canada.
- Martin pairs share nest building, incubating, brooding, and caring for their 4 to 6 young.
Attracting purple martins
- Martin housing requires an open area, ideally 80 feet by 80 feet, with no tall trees within 40 feet, and no human dwellings within 30 feet.
- A pole with a winch and pulley system, or one that telescopes, is highly recommended.
- White plastic gourds work well, because they can be opened for weekly monitoring and for cleaning at the end of the season.
Keeping them coming back
- Martin colonies return to the same site each year unless a major nesting failure occurs.
- Provide straw, pine needles, dry twigs, and a watered patch of mud for nest building.
- Clean and store housing after migration, and wait until martins return to your area to put it back up.
A final word
With purple martins in decline, a continuing alliance with the species is more important than ever. If your yard is appropriate for martin housing, contact the Purple Martin Conservation Association for tips on how to successfully attract and monitor purple martins. Check with your local nature center or Audubon sanctuary to see if they have—or may be able to establish—housing for purple martins. Though not all properties have the open habitat that purple martins need, you can help migratory birds of many species by offering safe cover and clean water in your humane backyard.
A place that offers food, shelter, water, refuge from toxic sprays, and safety from mowers—it’s what every creature wants, right? They want a Humane Backyard. By making simple changes, you can create that haven of comfort and security for local wildlife. And you can do it anywhere: in the city, suburbs, or country. So look around--at your backyard, balcony, or the park down the street—then let us teach you how to make your own Humane Backyard. Once you’ve learned how, take our Humane Backyard pledge.