Purple Martin (Progne subis)

It’s been a great joy this spring to see Purple Martins nesting for the first time at the Celery Fields following the erection of two Purple Martin houses there in the second week in March. Given how relatively late these structures were erected, it was amazing to see how quickly they were attracted to the new homes. Currently there are four pairs of birds occupying these houses and laying eggs. 

Most of us are used to the nesting boxes in the Amish community at Pinecraft, so much so that it would be easy to take these birds for granted. However Purple Martins suffered a severe population crash in the 20th century associated with the spread of European Starlings. Both starlings and House Sparrows compete with martins for nest cavities, and will aggressively drive them out, and /or kill the young. Consequently where martins once gathered in thousands, by the 1980s they severely declined.

In addition, whereas western birds often make use of natural cavities such as woodpecker holes in trees or saguaro cacti, east of the Rockies Purple Martins are almost entirely dependent on man-made structures like the ones at Pinecraft and the Celery Fields. Martin housing has a long history, some Native American tribes reportedly hung up hollow gourds around their villages to attract these birds, and currently there are many local Purple Martin associations dedicated to their welfare. Consequently the eastern population has stabilized.

 

 
Purple Martin Houses at the Celery Fields

Photographs by Glynnis Thomas

 

So a big hats off to Terry and Ed Suchma who provided both the encouragement and the advice to set up the Celery Fields nesting boxes. And thanks to the Amish community for their interest and efforts over many years as well. If it were not for this kind of effort the Purple Martins would likely vanish from eastern North America entirely. It is estimated that over one million North Americans currently put up housing for Purple Martins, and there are many websites which show you the do’s and dont’s.

Pinecraft Neighborhood Martin Houses

The Purple Martin is a kind of swallow (family: Hirundinidae), of the genus Progne, which is larger than most other swallow species. They have stout, slightly hooked bills, short forked tails and long, tapered wings. They are of course not purple, adult males being entirely black with a glossy blue sheen. Females and immatures are duller, with variable amounts of gray on the head and chest and a whitish lower belly. They breed throughout temperate North America but winter in the Amazon basin.

Purple Martins are aerial insectivores, catching insects on the wing. They are agile hunters and eat a wide variety of winged insects, including wasps, beetles, moths, spiders and dragonflies.  In addition, and to the joy of many birders, they also feed on flying fire ants (Solenopsis invicta). Yay!

Glynnis Thomas