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The Purple Martin, The Largest Swallow

Updated on May 2, 2013
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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.

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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.

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Behavior

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.

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Nesting Behavior

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.

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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.

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Factoids

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.

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    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Hopefully, you will come acrosss some, Lela. They are so beautiful, and all over the place, too.

    • CreatePerfection profile image

      CreatePerfection 4 years ago from Beautiful Colorado

      Very informative article. I didn't know about the Purple Martins and I don't know if we have them where I live, but I'm sure going to look into it. Thanks for the info and pictures. Good to know.

      Blessings,

      Lela

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Jackie, the weather has been changing al right, but back and forth. It should settle soon for us all.

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Oh, yes, KoffeeKlatch Gals. They are great birds to have around for their abilities in ridding the general vicinity of insects and their wonderful shows of acrobatics. Their entertainment value is amazing.

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Thanks, Rolly! I'm glad also, that you also warned me about remote planes. I was thinking about getting one, but now I won't.

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Hey, D.A.L.! Good to see you. Just can't live without those wonderful birds, can we?

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 4 years ago from The Beautiful South

      Eating and bathing in flight. That shocked a laugh out of me. I can only imagine seeing that! I guess birds are as individual as humans though, it shouldn't surprise me. Thanks for that info and all the beautiful photos. My south has turned cold and rainy and I found a broken robin egg in the back yard so I hope the weather changes to cheer me up soon.

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Haze 4 years ago from Sunny Florida

      I need some of the Purple Martins around my house to take care of the insects. They are a pretty bird. I love when I learn something new.

    • Rolly A Chabot profile image

      Rolly A Chabot 4 years ago from Alberta Canada

      Good Morning aviannovice... I so love these little guys and their sleek and impressive colouring. My neighbour has several houses along his fence and each year it is a pleasure to see them come back. Such expert and acrobatic flyers and watching them collect mosquitoes is such fun.

      Last summer I bought one of those remote controlled helicopters (OK I admit it... I am a little kid) but let me tell you the swallows do not like anything that may be competition. I had to stop flying it in the backyard. They would dive bomb at it and I was afraid it may harm them... lol... but they hated the thing.

      Love this offering... very informative...

      Blessings and Hugs to you and yours

    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 4 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Hi Deb another fascinating hub, with fantastic pictures, about these fascinating creatures. Keep up the good work. Rated up.

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Hey, Alicia. There is much that can be learned, simply by observation. I enjoy a good part of my day just watching. Rest assured, that we are being watched, too, by these endearing animals.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for this interesting look at the purple martin, Deb. As always, the photos are lovely. I enjoy watching purple martins where I live. It was great to learn more about these birds by reading your hub.

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Hey, Eddy! Glad that you liked o read about these swallows, they really are sweet birds, and so acrobatic, too. There are a number of martin houses around the lake.

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      prasetio, thanks for coming to visit. I also would love to hear about the birds in your part of the world.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      Wonderful Deb;you are a great teacher and a great photographer!!!!I am always a sucker for anything on nature and this hub Deb was a great treat.

      Voting up,across and shared.

      Enjoy your weekend.

      Eddy.

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 4 years ago from malang-indonesia

      I have never seen like this before. I am bird lovers. Thanks for writing and sharing with us. The pictures are remarkable. Voted up :-)

      Prasetio

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      That could well be, Jen. They like wide open spaces, too, so they can see around them. They also like it warm, too, for the most part, and love to be around water, if they can be. Thanks for visiting the lake again.

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Thanks, Nell. Will you be doing a piece on your wonderful swans, so I can see and learn about them?

    • jenb0128 profile image

      Jennifer Bridges 4 years ago from Michigan

      I love those pictures... action shots are my favorites! I enjoyed the rest of the hub as well. We don't see very many purple martins around my immediate area. Probably because of the hawks that like to hang around.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

      What a fascinating and beautiful bird, its amazing the different voice calls it does too. I love reading about all these new birds, and they are gorgeous aren't they? I took loads of great photos today too, about 40 swans sitting down waiting for all of us to feed them bread! lol! great hub, and voted up!

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Thanks, Connie. I so love these birds, they have so much personality. I observed them all last year, and for a couple of weeks thus far this year. I further felt, through observation, that I finally had some decent first hand knowledge to write their story. Thanks for the kind words!

    • grandmapearl profile image

      Connie Smith 4 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Hi Deb! My grandparents had purple martins on their farm. I can remember them flying over the fields as my grandpa moved along slowly on his tractor. He kicked up a lot of bugs, and the martins appreciated the easy meals. They had a pond not far from the upper field; and the pond edges were quite steep and high. You could see the nests perched on the rocks all around the pond. I remember the martins swooping over the water to snap up mosquitoes. Thanks for bringing back those wonderful memories! Voted Up++

      Connie

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Yes, Martin, and I am so happy that they are doing this. It gives me so much more knowledge. This strange weather has made all the birds late in their spring arrival all over the world.

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Hey, whonu! I have never seen hanging gourds, though I have looked them up on the internet to find them. It is amazing.

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 4 years ago from San Francisco

      My name-sake (kind of). Great report! I noticed you are inspiring other hubbers.

    • whonunuwho profile image

      whonunuwho 4 years ago from United States

      Amazing and such beautiful birds. I remember gords strung high on farms to accommodate the Martins. Nice work in photos and writing. whonu

    • aviannovice profile image
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      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Birds are so interesting and have so much to offer. They please us, tease us, and make us smile. Where can one obtain such great entertainment for no charge?

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      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I had no idea they were a swallow. I learn more from you every day my friend. Because of you and Pearl I am becoming a bird semi-expert. :)