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Attract Purple Martins To Your Home

Updated on October 5, 2012
This is Mr. Troyer's collection of houses, the T-16 with added compartments on each side.
This is Mr. Troyer's collection of houses, the T-16 with added compartments on each side.
One of our finished T-14 houses
One of our finished T-14 houses
Out T-14 houses being built in our Cottage Craft work shop
Out T-14 houses being built in our Cottage Craft work shop
Our T-14 houses awaiting assembly.
Our T-14 houses awaiting assembly.
One of our T-14 houses being attached around the post.
One of our T-14 houses being attached around the post.
Mr. Troyer's tree house martin observatory.
Mr. Troyer's tree house martin observatory.

Why People fall in Love with Purple Martins and go to such lengths to attract them.

It has taken some time for us fully gather an appreciation and understand why people go to such expense and great lengths to attract and cherish a Purple Martin colony.

We have to admit we are now hooked and have fallen in love with this extraordinary species of bird. When we moved into our Indiana home about 20 years ago, the previous owners had a metal martin house in the back yard that was inhabited by just about all types of birds except for the Purple Martin.

When we moved to Texas again the previous owners had installed the same type metal martin house. It just didn't seem that important to us because we pretty well had given up on the notion of having Purple Martins. One day our neighbors were over fishing and looked up at the house and said nice group of Purple Martins you have there. We pretty much discounted the comment as mistaken identify, until later we purchased a bird book and started studying the pictures, then started comparing pictures of different martins on the Internet.

What had thrown us were the various light colors of the young martins and the females. These didn't look like the deep purple colors that we envisioned from our parents who were always pointing in the books at what they wished they could attract.

Not ever having martins actually around, we thought these birds were just some different southern birds mixed in with some barn swallows nesting in the house. After we positively identified that we actually had the start of a colony we quickly regained an interest in Purple Martins.

We added another house that we bought at a garage sale, the following year more martins came and filled that house, we bought a new house and added it, the same thing the next year we had three houses full of martins.

When we went back up North we decided to visit one of our Amish friends Mr. Troyer who, well let’s say has become a self made expert on Purple Martins. This Amish gentleman has a real passion for Purple Martins he has a devoted life long interest in the study and development of Purple Martin Colonies. He even built his own Purple Martin observatory house, a rather large Purple Martin house built like a tree house with a glass windowed compartment in the center.

Like a tree house he has a ladder to climb up in the middle into the glassed observatory to study the nesting and natural habitat that Purple Martins seek. From this he has developed his own nest tray design which provides a bowl base for the nest. He indicates this allows the Purple Martin to use less nesting material. This is important to the younger offspring returning from the last season, as they usually return later than the older martins and have less time to build a nest in order to attract the female.

He logs his martin colony growth each year and has detailed information going back for years on the number of new martins produced in each of his various martin house next boxes.

He is not directly related to the Troyer who originally developed the famous T-14 Troyer House we sell here at Cottage Craft Works, but he has studied in conjunction and has improved upon the original design. We now also carry his new design and trays, both in the assembled martin house and martin house kits.

Much like a popular dating game, he told us the story of the martin courtship ritual. It is actually the male martin who builds the nest, and then all the males wait and compete for the female martin to come and choose their mate to nest with. The female will make her selection based on how the nest was constructed and where it is located for concerns of safety from potential predators.

The female likes to perch just above the view of all the nest box holes. This is neutral territory for the female to sit and look over and inspect each nest the males constructed in order to make her mate selection. She may travel to several martin houses in an area before she makes her final selection. Mr. Troyer indicates it is very important to not only add dowel rod perches to the top of the T-14 and his T-16 house but to also add them from the peak of each compartment house outward so the female can sit out and inspect the row of potential nest.

Purple Martins actually prefer to have the old nest cleaned out and some new nesting material added to each nest box for each season, pine needles and dried leafs seem to be the best material followed by straw. Just a little bit pushed down with a turning fist to develop the bowl shape nest. Using the pull out nesting trays like drawers, make the cleaning process easy.

To keep mites and other pest from infecting the newborn, Mr. Troyer sprinkles regular Seven Dust and mixes with the new nesting material in a 5 gallon bucket before placing it in the nesting boxes. As the martins return from South America in the spring they can actually transmit mites and other pest in their feathers. He also sprays the boxes with liquid Seven spray at the end of each season as he cleans the trays out. This will prevent other pest from developing.

Unlike other birds the martins do not mind having human interaction in the nesting process. In fact Purple Martins are the only species that are totally dependent on human made and maintained housing.

A true Purple Martin landlord will inspect the nesting process weekly and log dates when the first eggs were laid, and hatched, along with the number of martins grown in each compartment during each season. This is why the T-14 winch system is the most popular housing system for the serious martin landlord as it can be easily lowered and opened to inspect without damage or disrupting the eggs.

Pest and parasites are common problems in martin nest; a weekly inspection helps identify problems before a wide infestation takes over the entire martin house. Depending on the migration patterns, martins will come in early spring, and leave in late summer. During the vacant months it is important to block the holes to the nesting compartments so they don’t become home to sparrows or other non compatible occupancy to the martins. Purple Martins are rather discriminatory and will abandon a house if it has been inhabited by another species.

In the spring of 2011 we took the big plunge and used the plans from the Purple Martin House Plan Book we sell on the site at Cottage Craft Works and built two of the T-14 winch mounted houses. We actually had martin scouts in our region in mid February before we were able to have the houses up and finished. The plan book was very detailed and the only thing we had problems with was not being able to find the 20’ treated 2 x 6 as recommended for the post so we had to laminate 12’ and 8’ lumber together to make 20’ post.

Mr. Troyer houses are designed to use a 20’ treated 6 x 6 post notched at the top for the pulley. The T-14 post are designed to use a 1 x 6 treated board in the middle of two 2 x 6 so we laminated reversing the joints to reach the 20’ length. We also used exterior grade Liquid Nails and screwed the boards together with coated deck screws.

The post need to be cemented in the ground 3’ deep. We treated the section of our 2 x 6 laminated post that went underground with a black fence post preservative that we bought at the farm store. Most people are not aware of the different saturation levels of treated lumber, most treated lumber sold at the lumber yards like the treated 2 x 6 are only treated to be used for ground contact with a .40 saturation level while post are saturated with a more condensed .60 level of treatment for direct burial in the ground. Just Google this topic to learn more about the difference in treated lumber saturation levels.

The houses are built in four sections and bolt together around the post. The winch cable goes up and over a top pulley and mounts underneath one of the sections so the complete unit winches to the top of the pole and can be lowered for cleaning and checking on the progress of the new martin hatching. A top cap is added over the top of the post and pulley to keep the weather and UV form drying and splitting the wood pulley mounting sides. This could create an unsafe situation as the unit ages.

We used a stainless dog dish for our cap trying to stay away from plastic because of the UV issue. From the cap a short upright is attached to add the perch dowels. We bolted and silicone a 1-1/2” PVC pipe cap to the top then ran a short length of pipe up and capped it with another cap for the upright. We drilled holes through and used fiberglass electric fence post for our dowels because Texas heat is just not very friendly to wood. We sell the pulley and winch kit on the site, but most boat winches will work.

The challenge will be finding a 4" - 6" pulley locally that is also less than 3/4" wide to fit up between the 2 x 6 spaced with the 3/4" center opening left by not extending the 3/4" center board to the top of the post. If you use a smaller radius pulley the cable will bind on each side of the post.

The post also has a hole drilled thorough at just the height you can comfortably reach to install a pin. This is another safety feature should the house break loose when you are underneath winching the unit up and down. The house unit is winched up just past the post and the pin is installed and then winched to the top. The reverse routine is used when lowering the house unit. The winch is chained and padlocked to keep kids and curious people from releasing it.

We also used aluminum flashing and formed it to cover the exposed roof sections, most just paint the tops, but again we are in Texas where everything is bigger including the hot sun. We wanted these houses to last for years.

Based on your region and the Starling population you may need to add the Colony covers to keep the Starlings out of the nest. Starlings are also a natural predator to the martins. We carry a plastic plate that screws over the round holes. We tried a few with and without, the covers. The martins seemed to go for the round holes, and since we don't seem to have a starling issue we just took ours off.

We are pleased to report even though we were a bit late these new houses, (28 compartments) filled up and our Purple Martin Colony has grown immensely. We have enjoyed a rather mosquito free summer so far this year, we don’t know how much is attributed to the martins or our extreme drought here in Texas this year. The experts claim a single martin can catch 1000 mosquitoes in a day. This may seem far fetched and we haven’t been able to count that far much less count how many martins we actually have, but we can attest to the fun of sitting out in the evening and watching our martins at work. It reminds us of a group of swept wing fighter jets crisscrossing the sky going after those nasty bugs, we have also noted the martins have a very distinct chirp as almost as if it is done with an electronic synthesizer is the best way to explain it. We can now detect martins in the area just with this chirp.

Was the work and investment worth it? We think so the new houses have been a hit just like they are in the Northern Amish communities. It is no wonder why the Troyer T-14 design is so popular and widely used. We also have noticed our martins are staying with us longer. In the past few years they would have cleared out in the first week of July. It is now mid August and while the martins in the metal houses have left the new wooden T-14 houses are still fully active in the early mornings.

This winter we will probably construct add on side compartments to expand our houses with another 14 compartments. This allows us to add without having to construct another pole and winch system, something else we learned from our Amish friend.

You can type Troyer T-14 Martin Houses in the Internet and come up with plans and sources for these houses. We sell the plans, the complete houses or the kits to build your own at http://www.cottagecraftworks.com We have also named the house Mr. Troyer builds for us as the T-16 because it has 16 compartments.

Going with a winch mount system, may seem way over the top, but we are now convinced this is the best way to attract and grow a serious Purple Martin Colony.

Hope this helps those who are thinking about expanding and trying to recruit a Purple Martin colony to your home. Like us we think you will also fall in love with this amazing bird.

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