Purple Martins

The Purple Martin is our largest swallow.  According to the Audubon website, these birds are found all across the eastern US and west as far as eastern North and Sound Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.  They are migratory birds that winter in South America and summer here in the US.  Over much of their range they choose to nest in boxes put up by interested people.  Why would you want to spend the time building and maintaining nest boxes for these birds?  There is a list.

Top on the list of good things about Purple Martins is their diet.  They eat bugs.  Lots and lots of bugs.  They forage mostly in the air so eat pretty much any bug that flies - wasps, winged ants, beetles, flying grasshoppers, moths, butterflies, dragonflies, mosquitoes and occasionally bees.  They also may occasionally walk around on the ground and eat bugs they find there.  The birds are beautiful to look at and have a lovely lilting song that you can hear most regularly at dawn and dusk.  You just gotta love a bird that looks wonderful, sounds great and eats bugs.

I bought a purple martin house several years ago.  The pole goes into the ground and at the top are 8 round plastic gourds big enough to house a pair of purple martins and their 5 or 6 eggs.  We planted the pole in a place that seemed appropriate and hoped for the best.  Unfortunately, I wasn't exactly following best purple martin practices.  It seems there are lots of rules.  If the house is not in the right place or at the right height the birds will find somewhere else to nest.  Anytime you put out nest boxes there is always a chance that some other bird will move in.  Most of the issues seem to come with sparrows that are not very nice to the unassuming martins and will kill the young.

So here are the rules I've accumulated from various "Invite Purple Martins to your property" websites....  

1. Put the boxes out in January/February or whenever the purple martins are likely to arrive. 

2. Both the condo style bird houses and the hanging gourds work well.  Just make sure the pole gets them up 10 to 20 feet off the ground.

3. Keep the pole at least 40' from other tall trees/buildings but within 100' of my house.

4.  Bed the nests with some pine needles.  The martins will bring in the leaves they want when they move in. 

5.  Be sure to remove the nest boxes and gourds in September.  They need to be washed with soap and water and stored for the winter to be placed out again in the early spring when the purple martins are expected.

OK.  I did pick a spot about the correct distance from my trees and house but after that I did nothing.  No bedding with anything.  I didn't even manage to pull the pole up so the gourds were the right distance from the ground.  And I left the gourds hanging there for years without ever cleaning them.


Then a miracle happened.  Last year I had purple martins in my nests.  I was so unaware I didn't realize they had moved in until my landscaper, Matt Menefee, pointed out that they were there.  And then I was slow in following the other tasks.  I pulled the gourds down last week and washed them.  Then I had to wash them again when I realized I was supposed to use soap.  Well, crap, Penny.  Get with the program.


So yesterday in full stunning sunshine and 80 degrees of spring like weather with purple martin song in the air, we bedded the gourds with pine needles and attached them to the pole.  We raised the pole to a good height, much higher than it was last year.  We are ready for purple martins.  I really hope they have not all become disgusted with us and found other living arrangements.

I'm already thinking about next year.  If we get purple martins this year, I'm getting a taller and more substantial pole - one with a hand crank so we can raise the lower the nest boxes without needing a 14' ladder.  And one with gourds that have a side lid so we can check on the birds/eggs.  One of the websites suggested you should check on the birds about every 5 days so you can remove interlopers who aren't purple martins and move any of the birds whose nest are full of mites or ants.  I'm not sure that level of care and attention will ever happen but hopefully I can follow the rules better from now on.