The Purple Martin, The Largest Swallow
Colonies of Purple Martins once nested in tall dead trees and saguaro cacti, but with the arrival of man and his businesses and dwellings, that is now passé. Today, our largest North American swallow generally has real estate in the manmade multi-dwelling martin houses. Sometimes, hundreds of pairs nest together, and they will sometimes share the large housing structure with House Sparrows. Nesting cavities will also be shared by European Starlings if they choose old woodpecker holes.
Benefits of Purple Martins
Martin houses were inspired by the Native American custom of placing empty gourds on high poles to attract the Purple Martin for both aesthetic reasons and to reduce insects around villages and crops. These birds are nearly universally treasured for their preference for nesting near humanity, their beautiful and graceful flight, their noteworthy behavior, and their amazing ability to catch their food on the fly. They keep their neighborhoods free from nearly all kinds of flying insects, especially nuisance ones like mosquitos and flies. Both Indians and colonists also attracted martins because they would drive away hawks, crows, and other large birds from farms and villages, as well as protect food stores and crops.
These birds frequent the open country and agricultural areas, notably near water and urban/suburban areas. They nest either in colonies or in pairs, and these long-distance migrants winter from southeast Brazil to Venezuela. In the fall, communal roosting and migratory flocks may get into the tens of thousands, an impressive number for any flock of birds. Though they do forage on the ground, they prefer to catch and consume insects in flight. They also tend to bathe and drink while in flight. Nesting birds will eat eggshells, if one puts them out, but it is hard to attract them to one’s backyard. They cannot be around any trees where predators, like hawks and owls, tend to hide. They may also nest once in your martin house, but perhaps not the following year.
If these martins choose to nest in cliff ridges or on large rocks, the nests will be comprised of feathers, mud, leaves, and whatever debris they can locate. They prefer to nest between five and twenty feet above ground, and the nest will be built by both sexes. The eggs are plain white, from oval to long oval, and there are between three and eight eggs lain.
How to Identify a Purple Martin
These are very good looking birds, as well as noticeable. If you see one, it is readily identifiable. The male is overall a dark purple-blue iridescent color. The female is blue-gray on the upper parts, and gray to white lower breast and belly. They both have a forked tail, which helps them to make twists and turns in a rapid manner. I have heard them gurgle, chirrup, cackle and click in their conversations. Large groups of them tend to get on very well together.
Collectively, martins and swallows are basically the same birds. They all have long wings, agile flight, and feed almost exclusively on the insects that they procure between 160-500 feet in the air. Martins don’t do well in temperatures constantly below 48 degrees, as it affects their food supply. Insects are not plentiful and available under those temperatures. Two or three days without food, and they will die. The longest recorded lifespan of a banded purple martin is 13 years. The top speed of this bird can be forty miles per hour.