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Purple Martins

Posted on Jul 15, 2015

Purple Martins (Progne subis) are a unique species even among other unique birds! These sizable aerial insectivores nest only within human-manufactured cavities including gourds, apartments and other types of boxes essentially everywhere to the east of the Rocky Mountains. This is due to Native Americans hosting them in gourds for thousands of years, slowly shifting their breeding behavior to using artificial structures as it was such a successful and mutually beneficial relationship. Without our help it is likely they would be entirely eliminated in this part of their range.

Purple Martin perch-0038

Marketing is a everything, and the makers of these various homes used to promote the fact that these martins could clear the air of all mosquitoes and every type of pest and biting insect. However, we know those bugs are only a tiny percentage of their prey because they are such a small meal. These birds rely on insects such as dragonflies and butterflies to feed them and their growing young.

Purple Martin bands-0052

You may be able to note in these photos that some of the birds have color bands on one leg to go along with a silver federal band on the other. Connecticut has been banding different major colonies with different color bands and combinations for years now, with young nestlings having the bands placed on them by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and volunteers (like me years ago) each summer. If you spot one please email deep.ctwildlife@ct.gov and let them know 1) where you saw it; 2) when you saw it; and 3) the color of the legs bands. See more information here.

Purple Martin gourd-0026

These color bands each have a unique identifying code printed on the side, and if you can read that with binoculars or a scope you can get each individual bird’s entire life history! Even if you cannot get that much information the color and combination tells you which at location a bird was born, giving us a lot of data on their movements, if they return to their natal colony, and how far away they have their own family one day.

Purple Martin perch-0057

The migratory journey of a Purple Martin takes them all the way to South America, and often Brazil, for the winter. This trip must be made on a careful timetable to ensure they are able to dodge inclement weather and successfully feed along the way.

Purple Martin yellow band-0023

If you have a large backyard or open space, especially near water, with minimal ground cover or even a mowed lawn – perfect for a golf course or other necessarily maintained area – you too can have a Purple Martin colony! Be sure to have gourds that exclude House Sparrows and European Starlings by design, to keep them clean each year, and to check on the nests for mites and other threats while installing predator guards at the base. It is very satisfying to watch new generations come into the world with your own family each year.

Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation & Outreach Coordinator