So why do people want to attract purple martins? Why
would anyone want to go out of his way to supply housing for these
Well, here's just a few reasons.
and delightful creatures, literally filling the air in summer,
singing their hearts out and eating large quantities of insects that
could otherwise be pestering us.
They're very friendly birds,
actually enjoying being in the company of humans. In fact, once
settled in, they 'expect' to see humans around their nesting
When they return every spring it actually makes a
person feel as though they've accomplished something by supplying
them a home and having them use it for nesting. In fact, after a
year or two, one will actually start looking for their return.
My own personal belief is that spring doesn't begin until the
They're very soothing to watch. Sitting out
in the evenings and watching their aerial acrobatics is a joy that
cannot be described here in words. It must be witnessed in person.
And there is no age limit. Many a fond memory will be retained by
all who simply sit and watch them.
So what are some of the things needed to attract purple
martins. Let's take a look.
Martins like space to spread their wings. The air over
open fields, pastures and wide open lawns are some of their favorite
hangouts. They can often be seen floating on early morning thermals,
dipping and diving, snatching insects from the air, their low
guttural songs announcing to others to come and partake in the feast
they have found.
Now, if you live in a town with lots of
houses around and don't think that martins will come, think again.
In a town near where I live, one man has as many as 24 gourds, 12
feet off the ground and they are full of purple martins every year.
In fact, it's a place of business where people are coming and going
all day and the martins don't even blink an eye. They just go about
their business plucking insects out of the air over the tree and
roof tops. The key to his success, the location of his site.
Location, Location, Location
First, keep this one thing in mind when establishing and
locating any purple martin site. Nesting Purple Martins don't
like trees or bushes close to their nesting site. These trees or
bushes could harbor predators, and if they feel unsafe in any way,
they just won't stay.
If you plan to attempt to attract
martins to any area, the site should have a lot of landing room.
Martins like to swoop into their nests, and if there are any tall
trees or other hindering obstructions close by, it is going to be
very difficult for the site to attract them. A 'common rule'
is that the 'housing should be placed at a distance away equal to
the height of the offending object' be it a tree or a building. The
swooping nature of martins makes this a must and if you've ever
watched martins come into an established colony, then you'd
You'll hear numbers like 40 feet as a minimum, but I
feel that number is a little close in many situations and if you're
dealing with trees that are 60' or 70' tall, then the 40' foot
number is definitely too close. If the rule above is followed,
then you have a better chance of attracting them. Each
situation has to be evaluated on its own merits.
secondly, don't place the site too far away from human housing. Try
to keep it within 60' - 100' of 'your' house. I know this is
contrary to the normal rules of nature and the rule stated above,
but martins like to have human activity going on when they
are nesting. They actually want to see their landlord. Apparently,
through generations of imprinting, they feel the commotion around
the site helps keep predators away.
Martins drink and bathe on the wing. Therefore, your
chances to attract them improve if there is clean, open water
somewhat near the site, within a half mile if possible. If there
isn't then don't give up. Martins have been known to fly up to 2
miles for a drink, although the closer the water is, the more
attractive the site is going to be. And if you do happen to get some
martins to move in, don't worry about the young, they get all the
moisture they need from the insects that are fed to them. No,
martins do not drink from bird baths.
Martins eat insects, lots of insects. Among them are
dragonflies, horseflies, wasps, beetles, moths and grasshoppers.
They will even catch an occasional housefly that happens to stray a
little too high. This is another reason for starting a martin
colony. They will help keep the insect population somewhat under
control. No, martins do not eat from bird feeders.
However; one of the major misconceptions that people have
about purple martins is that they eat thousands of mosquitoes every
day. Unfortunately, this is not the case. If you take a minute
or two to read Homes for Birds/Purple Martins, you'll
find that they're not the mosquito devastators that some might have
you believe. If you are interested in controlling mosquitoes, then
you'll have to find another means.
Just like any other creature of nature, martins are
opportunistic eaters and will take what ever food is available at
the time, and according to the studies done on the subject,
mosquitoes are not near the top of that list. Studies showed that
mosquitoes were less than 2 % of the martins' diet and if you stop
to think about it, mosquitoes come out about dark, just about the
same time martins go to roost, so the two just don't cross
Now this is not intended to dissuade your beliefs
about martins. I'm simply presenting the facts taken from studies
done on the subject. This in no way detracts from the fact that
these birds are still a joy to have around. If they weren't, I
wouldn't be here trying to persuade you to try and attract them.
Martins like to nest in colonies and over the years, have
come to depend on man almost exclusively for their housing.
(Generational Imprinting). They will need someone to supply them
with and maintain a nesting site. This means someone to keep the
site in good repair, apply proper predator protection devices where
required, clean it out at the end of each nesting season and keep
other pests away from the site so they can enjoy the raising of
their young in relative peace and safety. The type of structure to
be supplied for the martins is at the discretion or personal
preference of the landlord and often this decision may be made due
to monetary availability, however, before spending any money on
housing, the potential landlord should educate themselves as much as
possible on the different types of housing available and the pros
and cons of each.
If you decide you'd like to erect a purple
martin site, do it in such a way that you'll enjoy what you're
doing. Just be forewarned. You 'will' be bothered by pests and
predators, you 'will' have to get at the nests to clean them out and
you 'should' perform nest checks. And, of course, there is always
some general maintenance that will need to be done from time to
time. If you have to climb ladders or work with difficult housing to
do your maintenance, then it won't be any fun and therefore, you
won't enjoy yourself. Regardless of what type of housing you decide
on, it should be easily accessible so you can perform the
maintenance, thus making it an enjoyable hobby. You'll want to have
housing that is easily accessible by lowering on a pole. This can be
either a pulley system or a telescoping pole system depending on the
type of housing you have. This makes maintenance very quick and
easy, something that is desirable when the martins are in the site.
Going out of your way to properly erect your site to begin with will
make life a lot easier and more enjoyable for you down the
Regardless of housing selection, when using the
vertical access method, I recommend using good, sturdy ropes and
pulleys because when you have all the extra weight of the martins
and their nesting materials in the nests, telescoping poles become
difficult to work with. For someone who is slight in stature, this
could become a problem.
Also, NEVER use housing that
TILTS on a pole to gain access to the house. This could
damage the eggs or harm the young.
It's a common feeling amongst a lot of 'old timers' and
many new landlords that they are afraid to do nest checks for fear
of scaring their hard won tenants away. It's felt that, if they
bother the birds, they will abandon their nests and not come back.
After all, they worked very hard to get these birds to come and
stay, why would they want to disturb them and have them leave.
It is a proven fact that nesting purple martins are not
afraid of human intervention and in fact, records show they do 'much
better' and will raise and fledge more nestlings if regular nest
checks are done. Contrary to many beliefs, purple martins do not
seem to mind if their nests are 'temporarily' disturbed by humans
once they are established. This doesn't mean overdoing it, but once
every 4 or 5 days will tell the landlord how things are going in the
nest, and they will be able to spot any trouble in time to do
something about it. And take the time to keep records. From a nest
check done every 4 or 5 days, the landlord can; check how nest
building is progressing, approximate when the first egg was laid,
check for predator and/or parasite problems, keep an eye on the
young and generally learn more about the birds as they progress
through their reproduction cycle. After all, isn't that one of the
reasons you wanted purple martins anyway!
As with anything in nature, martins have quite a few
natural enemies. Coopers and Sharp Shinned Hawks may get one every
now and then. This is natural and is natures way, everything has to
eat. Owls can create a lot of problems and in fact, if the proper
guards aren't installed, they can wipe out an entire colony in one
or two nights. Grounded critters such as cats, raccoons, squirrels
or snakes should not be a threat to a 'properly erected' and
maintained site that has the 'appropriate predator guards' properly
installed and in place.
One major problem martins have is
competition for nesting sites from other birds. The two major pests
you will have problems with are the English House Sparrow and
the European Starling. These non-native birds will
take over nesting sites and fiercely fend off the martins,
especially if they are young martin arrivals that are not yet
established in the site. Both birds are transplants here in the U.S.
and have become so numerous that they are now considered pest
species, especially to martin and bluebird landlords. I happen to
enjoy birds and I feed them year round, but when it comes to my
martin sites, I give no quarter to any bird that tries to take over
a nest. Depending on the bird species, offering friendly native
species alternative housing to relocate should be practiced.
Likewise, capture and destroying the non-native species should be
Mites, lice and blowflies are common nest
parasites and can become a problem if the site is not properly
maintained. These problems can only be identified if nest
checks are done. If they do become a problem, there are a
number of things you can do to rid the site of them.
expanded thoughts and comments on controlling pests.
Probably one of the most asked questions about purple
martin housing is, "How high should my housing be?" This is a
matter of preference for the landlord to be and the type of housing
being offered. Martins will nest at just about any height from 10'
all the way up to 20'. I have personally seen them nesting in a
gourd that was hung on a 4' page wire fence beside a horse
Look at your own situation and evaluate it from there.
If you have a tall pole with a crank for lifting a heavy wooden
house, then it doesn't matter. The crank is going to be doing all
the work for you so height is not a problem. If however, you have an
aluminum house setting on top of a telescoping pole, you are not
going to want it too high, because you'll have to raise and lower
the house by hand, and if it gets full of nesting material and
birds, this can become quite a chore. If you have gourd racks and
pulley systems like I do, then the effort of raising and lowering
the racks is not that much because of the pulley system. You can
select how high you want your gourds to be, cut the pole off at that
height and go from there.
If you have an ideal site with no
trees in sight, then you could start at 10' or 12'. That way, you
will have them right close to the ground where they can be inspected
easily and also enjoyed more. The higher you have them, the more
difficult it is to work your housing for inspections. Also, the
higher the housing is, the more susceptible it is to high winds. For
sites that are open, this can be a problem at just about any time,
and bent or broken poles are often the results. If because of your
site location you have to start high, say 18' to 20', once you get
them established, you can lower the housing by cutting about 3' off
the pole each year until you get it down to where it is more
One other thing. All of my examples given are for
housing that is manageable, meaning being able to raise and
lower the housing for inspections, pest control and maintenance. If
you have housing that is just mounted to the top of a tall wooden or
metal pole and it doesn't have these capabilities, I strongly
suggest that the time and effort be taken to change it out. Hauling
out a ladder each time you need to get into your martin house is a
chore and makes the hobby less enjoyable. Also more
For years it has been debated between purple martin
lovers about what type of structure should be put up for martins?
Houses...Gourds? Should they be made from Wood...Aluminum...Plastic?
Some swear that tenant houses are the only way to go, and among
them, they debate whether they should be made from wood or aluminum
or plastic. Others say that gourds work wonderfully. I say it
totally depends on your own personal feelings or requirements.
Let's explore this purple martin housing debate a
little deeper. Purple martins are very gregarious birds, meaning
they like to hang out with a lot of their own kind. And, not only
are they friendly towards each other, but they're also very friendly
towards man. (Generational Imprinting). In fact, they actually
prefer nesting around the dwellings of humans, relying on the humans
to build them suitable places to nest, and to keep them in good
repair. Since they like to nest in colonies, one of the best ways to
help them do this is to supply them tenant type houses to nest in.
(Houses with a lot of rooms in them, at least 8 - 12 to start). But,
often these houses, because of their size and weight can be heavy
and cumbersome and difficult to maneuver up and down poles,
sometimes requiring cranks and winches. Some are hard mounted and
don't move at all, requiring a ladder to perform maintenance. And
still others tilt with the pole for cleaning out. Because pest birds
such as starlings and sparrows like to nest in martin housing and
because of their persistence, the house will have to be lowered to
clean out the nests of these unwanted pests, often every day. If you
have a tilting house, the eggs or young could easily break or fall
out of the nest. Therefore, a pole that allows the vertical raising
and lowering of the house is preferred. Let me also note, if you use
wooden poles to mount your housing, make sure the proper predator
guards are in place. Cats or any other critters that climb are a
definite deterrent to martins nesting in your house and without
guards preventing this, they will shimmy up the pole and make short
work of your colony.
There are a number of different
commercial houses on the market that are made out of aluminum, are
light and work rather well on a telescoping pole that allows the
house to be raised and lowered. But be prepared, they are not
cheap and people will often think twice before purchasing one.
Look for quality.
Some of the better quality houses available today
are going to be expensive, but I'm one that says "you get what you
pay for'. Might cost now, but it will last for many years to
come, making it 'cheaper in the long run'. Buying the cheaper
models only adds to the manufacturer's bottom line because you have
to come back in shorter time to buy another one.
better. Wood... Aluminum...Plastic? I have a woodshop and I build my
martin houses. I make them from Western Cedar, a very light
and weather resistant wood. It's excellent for building bird houses
of all kinds. Because the wood is porous, it has very good
insulating properties from heat or cold, and the natural resins
in the wood make it a good wood to use out in the elements. I have
bird houses that I built 10 years ago from it that are still going
strong showing very little wear.
My own personal suggestion,
if your going to build your own martin house, or bird house of any
kind for that matter, don't build it out of any kind of wood not
suited for use out in the elements. You'll just be building it again
in 5 or 6 years.
Unless you know what
you are doing, be sure and fully investigate lumber that has been
specifically treated for outdoor use when building any type of
structure intended to house any kind of live creature. These lumbers
have special chemicals imbedded in the wood to make it last longer
in the elements and although not all, some of those chemicals
are poisonous to many living creatures, including humans. Before
using this kind of wood, ask questions from an expert to make
sure that you know what you're dealing with.
I work in the engineering field, I know that aluminum can dissipate
heat very well. I also know that it can absorb heat from direct sun
just as well. Although I have not done any thermal tests as far as
birdhouses are concerned, the experts say that it works very well.
My own personal experience is that martins hesitate to nest in
them.. One of the problems found with them is their small 6 x 6 x 6
inch compartments make for very crowded living conditions. This
isn't very much room for a bird that is 8" long. The better
ones have the ability to remove a middle panel and make the
compartments 6 x 6 x 12 inches or better yet, are designed from
the start for the larger compartments. This gives the birds much
more room to raise their broods and also offers much more protection
if a flying predator just happens by.
I've seen statements
from aluminum housing manufacturers that state starlings shy away
from the bright insides of aluminum houses however; that's not what
I've personally witnessed. I've also seen sparrows literally infest
an aluminum martin house. The small compartments are just the right
size, just the right height and dry. My own personal conclusion is
this. Starlings and sparrows will invade ANY type of martin
housing regardless of what it is if it fits their needs. Wood,
aluminum, plastic, gourds, all are susceptible to these pests, and
once they take up residence, the only way to get rid of them is to
trap and destroy them or shoot them. They will not give
up a nesting cavity once they occupy it.
Another point about
aluminum, the cost. One of these aluminum houses can be rather
pricey. Aluminum as a material is very expensive, but will last out
in the elements for a very long time, therefore; it's a great
material for outside use such as martin houses. If you plan to buy
one, the only question here is, can you afford one of the better
Remember one thing. Aluminum martin houses are made and
sold by manufacturers to make money. Therefore, they are engineered
to be manufactured for the least investment possible so the
manufacturer can make as much profit as possible. Although things
are slowly changing, in some cases, I don't believe the martins'
best interests are fully taken into consideration. If they were, the
6 x 6 x 6 inch compartments would be enlarged to 6 x 6 x 12 so that
the birds would have more room to raise their broods.
martin houses are another option available however; my own first
hand experience is that any that are available on the market today
just aren't very well suited for purple martin housing. They
may look pretty, but the material is much too light weight
and if a Great Horned or Barred Owl wanted in, then he would simply
rip the front face off the house and get in. From
conversations I've been in, these manufacturers have no intention of
changing their houses to make them stronger, better or safer for the
martins. If you're interested in plastic, then I say, make
sure it is a quality house with the capabilities to change to
the larger compartments or you'll only end up regretting it
later. And make sure you have access into the front of the
house by removable front doors. I promise, you'll
Now, let's look at gourds. This is another form of housing
that is widely used throughout the martins' range. They're light,
they're cheap, they're just the right size and if done right, very
easy to care for. If for some reason one becomes unusable, you
simply replace it. Like houses, they should be painted white to
reflect the heat from the sun. This also helps attract the
martins and it'll also make the gourds last longer. Gourds can be
presented to the martins in many different ways. One outdated
method is to string them on a wire stretched between two poles, but
this method makes maintenance very difficult and the martins uneasy
because the wires attach to poles, making access by predators much
easier. They can also be put on a metal pole with cross arms,
however, many of these setups are not easily accessible.
Another approach to hang gourds on racks of different kinds.
Some use old rake tines, some use wagon wheels. Below is a
rack that I designed because I didn't like any of the other
arrangements. This one raises and lowers very easily for nest
checks and maintenance and trust me, the martins love it.
Martins love places to roost and preen and this design has plenty.
I've added a couple of these to my site and now have
both wooden martin houses and these gourd rack systems in my yard. I
just offered them as an alternative to the houses and the martins
took right to them. Gourds were used long before houses were
invented and they worked just fine then. And just like any other
outdoor item you might have, they will require occasional
maintenance, and/or replacing. Although very hard on the outside,
their walls are porous and therefore, do not transfer heat very
Along with natural gourds, there are also now plastic
gourds. Two versions that are out are the upright and the
horizontal. There are a number of suppliers for the upright
and one so far for the horizontal. Both versions come in a
large 10" plus size and both report good numbers and
popularity. However, there are a few of the very small
6" plastics that shouldn't be sold for martin housing and in fact,
they should be removed from the market place because they are so
dangerous for martins to nest in. Any avian predator that
comes by can simply reach in and remove the contents and fly off
with it. This is why I feel there should be a standard
for martin housing and if commercial housing doesn't come up to
those standards, then it should be removed from the shelves.
When should a Purple Martin house be put up? This is
probably one of the hardest questions to answer for any pending
purple martin landlord. 'Housing' here is defined as any form of
structure intended for Purple Martins to nest in. Wood, Plastic,
Aluminum or Gourds. You've made your choice as to the type of
housing you want to use, spring is here, your anxious and ready to
put it up. The major question here is, When?
actually three different factors to consider in determining the
answer to this question.
Factor One: Is your site
'established'? In other words, did you put housing up last
year and did martins nest in it? If so, then you can consider your
site established. This means that, assuming nothing has happened to
the birds that nested there last year and they nested successfully,
then they will return to your site this year. Therefore, all you
need to know is, when do the scouts usually arrive in your area?
This is generally a given time period plus/minus a couple of weeks.
For instance if I look at the map HERE, I can tell that the first martins
generally arrive in my area here in Northern Alabama around the 1st
of March. Since my site is 'established', I would want to have my
housing 'up' and 'open' on or before that date. That way, the scouts
for my site, (the first martins to return to any area), will have a
place to land and assume nesting cavities.
Is your site 'new'?
In this case, obviously, you have new housing
and it has yet to be put up. Again, look at the map and find the
time for the approximate arrival of scouts in your area, add 3 or 4
weeks to that date and then put your housing up.
Some believe that attracting martins to new housing is
different. Although there are exceptions to all rules, more than
likely you're not going to get any mature martins to nest in your
new site the first year. Purple Martins have a very strong
'site tenacity', meaning they will return to the same site
they successfully nested in previously. It's this one fact that
keeps purple martin colonies going year after year. Therefore,
the birds you're looking to attract will more than likely be 'second
year' birds (SY), or birds that were hatched the previous
year. They have not yet nested anywhere before and therefore, will
be looking for places in which to set up house keeping. Some of the
young birds will return to the sites where they were hatched, but
that's a very small percentage. Most of the offspring spread out to
other sites the following year and for the most part, these are the
birds you're looking to attract. And don't get discouraged.
Depending on where you live, some of these second year birds could
be returning as many as 10 weeks behind the scouts.
when do these birds arrive in my area? SY birds usually begin
returning on an average of about 4 weeks after the mature birds have
arrived, and then continue to arrive for about another 4 - 6 weeks
depending on where you live. Therefore, after seeing the map, I know
that the scouts usually start arriving here around Mar 1st. If you
were starting a new site, you need to add 4 weeks and put your
housing up around April 1st.
However; I feel there is a third factor. I'm
one that feels that some older and more mature birds will
change sites if they consider a new site to be better
than the one they were in the previous year. With that
thought, I would open a new house on the same dates that established
colonies did. Then, if some mature birds decided that my site
was more superior than the old one, then they would move to
my site. I've witnessed this in person and as of late, a lot
of landlords that had to move and needed to start over also found
out that by raising their site on the scout arrival dates, that
mature birds will come to new sites. Sometimes you can get
lucky and not have to wait those extra 4 to 6 weeks.
Also, usually not all birds are able to mate and nest the
previous year. These birds will return as mature birds and
will be looking for a place to nest. Since they were
unsuccessful the previous year, they just may be looking for a
new site and they site just may be yours.
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by Chuck Abare
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