April 28, 2018
by Milan Bull, Senior Director of Science and Conservation
As spring unfolds, Purple Martin landlords anxiously await the arrival of their tenants.
Purple Martins are beautiful, much-admired songbirds, and these popular swallows are sought after as backyard birds all across the U.S., particularly in the south and east. Colonial nesters, Purple Martins nest in man-made “apartment” style bird houses or clusters of gourds hung on poles or “gourd trees.”
These remarkable birds, which feed only on flying insects, are often mistakenly thought to control mosquitos, however, it turns out they feed on a much wider variety of insects including dragonflies, which feed on mosquitoes!
Nonetheless, Purple Martins, with their beautiful chortling calls and melodious whistles are among America’s favorite songbirds and those landlords fortunate enough to host a colony on their property are the envy of bird lovers everywhere.
Purple Martins are not easy to attract, requiring certain habitat and landscape conditions, usually open areas near water, but once a colony is established, they will return every year to breed and raise their young.
They are very tolerant and sociable birds, and respond well to husbandry of the colony, which involves regular checking of the nest cavities for parasites, mortality, and unwanted intruders such as House Sparrows and Starlings.
What it looks like: The male Purple Martin is not purple, but entirely bluish black and is the only North American swallow with a dark belly. Noticeably larger than other swallows, Purple Martins can be distinguished not only by size, but also by a slightly slower wing beat. The adult female has a dark bluish back but grey-brown underparts.
When to look: Purple Martins are returning in good numbers to their breeding colonies now and will soon begin their reproductive cycle.
Where to find it: The best places to look for these birds is, of course, around their nest colonies. There are several around the state that are easily accessible. The Connecticut Audubon Society Coastal Center at Milford Point, Hammonasset State Park’s East Beach Nature Center in Madison, and Sherwood Island State Park in Westport all enjoy active martin colonies.
Each July we help the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection band the martins at the Coastal Center, and last summer we produced a video that shows the process.
Conservation status: The IUCN currently lists the Purple Martin as Least Concern. This species has an extremely large range and the population trend appears to be stable, likely helped by the thousands of landlords who erect and maintain colonies all across the East.
Interesting facts: The association between Purple Martins and people began hundreds of years ago when Native Americans hung hollow gourds around their villages for the birds to nest in, an effort to help keep insects away from their crops. The eastern Purple Martins are now entirely dependent on artificial housing and no longer nest in natural cavities such as hollow trees. The western populations, however, still nest in natural cavities.