by Michael Aurelia, Connecticut Audubon Society Board of Directors
Purple Martins are the largest of the seven swallow family members that one can observe in Connecticut (last week’s Bird Finder featured another, the Cliff Swallow).
They are slightly smaller and thinner than European Starlings and can be seen soaring and gliding over grassy and shrubby open spaces looking for flying insects. Purple Martins are dependent on man-made houses or gourds on the east coast though they will nest in cavities on the west coast. In Connecticut they always nest in small to medium sized colonies near water.
What it looks like: Adult males are a dark iridescent blue-purple but look black. Females and juveniles are duller with shades of gray on the head and chest, and some white on the lower belly. The wings are long and tapered, the tail mildly forked.
Where and how to find It: Most of Connecticut’s Purple Martin colonies are along the coast, including at Sherwood Island and Hammonasset State Parks as well as Connecticut Audubon’s Coastal Center at Milford Point.
To find the most recent reports of this swallow, go to e-Bird.org and click Explore Data. Chose “species maps” and insert “Purple Martin.” For date, choose “year around current year.” For location: Connecticut.
Although you are most likely to find this bird along the coast, smaller inland colonies are also found in Kent, Norwich, Sharon and Washington. Inland locations will usually be near lakes or large ponds.
You can watch the Coastal Center Purple Martins in action via Connecticut Audubon’s live-streaming Purple Martin cam.
Other interesting facts: Purple Martins are aerial insectivores. They feed by flapping and gliding in the air at different heights. They are usually found flying higher than other swallows and frequently are feeding so high that they are difficult to see with the naked eye.
Males usually arrive by mid-April to scout out territories and most birds have left Connecticut by late August. Purple Martins spend the winter in northern to central South America.
Conservation Status: The wildlife staff at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has been working with volunteers to create a group of Purple Martin landlords with the hope of expanding the state’s breeding population – an effort that is working. DEEP staff and volunteers have been monitoring more than 30 Purple Martin colonies, some of which DEEP officials discovered relatively recently after reaching out to private landowners. In the 2015 breeding season, 1,252 juvenile martins were banded. Twenty-three colonies have their own band color combinations.
In 2015, the official status of Purple Martins in Connecticut was improved, to special concern, from threatened. The Purple Martin Conservation Association uses Connecticut a model for other states to follow to turn around declines in their Purple Martin populations.
On the national level, the IUCN indicates the status is of Least Concern. This listing is in spite of the fact that from 1966 to 2015, a 37 percent decline was noted in the data of the North American Breeding Bird Survey.
Purple Martin colonies are under threat from introduced species such as European Starlings and House Sparrows, which take over martin houses and gourds, and damage eggs or kill nestlings. Cold snaps longer than three to four days also kill martins because of their effect on the insects the birds rely on for food.