Bird of the Week #17: Purple Martin

What if I told you that you could be a bird landlord? Thanks to the Purple Martin, you can!

Before I get into the Purple Martin, I want to get some housekeeping out of the way. This will be the only post this week. Sadly, I haven’t been able to get any pictures or find time to write anything interesting. My schedule is bonkers, but hopefully will return to normal soon.

Anyway, let’s talks about the Purple Martin!

The Purple Martin is not purple. They usually look more blue. But, in fact, there is no such thing as a true blue bird. Or, in this case, purple bird.

“But Mr. Great Plains Bird Man, I see blue birds all the time! There’s Blue Jays and Indigo Buntings and Bluebirds!”

You’re correct. These birds all appear blue thanks to the way light interacts with a protein in their feathers called keratin. Birds get red or yellow from pigments, usually generated by the foods the birds eat. Birds are unable to actually produce a blue pigment and instead what you’re seeing is almost akin to an optical illusion.

Purple Martins are no exception. Some of them will look more green than blue and a few will show that purple-ish color they’re named for, but they’re generally a very dark navy blue. The males will be darkly colored all over, while the females will have gray chests.

What’s this about being a landlord, you ask? Purple Martins are cavity nesters, but have adapted to strongly prefer man-made Purple Martin nest-boxes. You may have seen them around. Often, they’re shaped like gourds or look like a birdhouse apartment. Usually they’re all grouped together and you’ll see dozens of martins flying in and out of the holes, building nests and feeding young!

To set one up yourself, you’ll need to purchase the appropriate bird house. I’ve linked a few below from Amazon, for your convenience. Set the house up nice and high on a pole, about twelve feet. Another considering is where. Find somewhere nice and open, close to a water source, but far from your bird feeders. You don’t want a starling or a house sparrow deciding the martin house looks nice.

The martins won’t eat from your bird feeders. Purple Martins are insectivores, through and through. Like the Barn Swallow, Purple Martins eat insects from the air. They are incredibly entertaining to watch as they swoop around, dive-bombing after butterflies, moths, dragonflies, and any other bugs they can get their beaks on. They’re very fast and nimble, being specialized in the hawking of insects.

Like Barn Swallows, Purple Martins also migrate great distances, being found in South America during the winter. They only visit Kansas during the summer when all of the insects are out. And thank goodness, I don’t know what I’d do without them!

Sadly, Purple Martins are in a bit of a decline right now. They developed a healthy relationship with humans in that we provided them with the perfect nests. These nests were so perfect that they started to disregard other nests. On top of that, the invasive house sparrow and European starling started using their natural nesting sites, so they had a hard time finding anything but man-made Purple Martin houses. This decline is caused by there being fewer man-made nests due to waning interest in birding. Unfortunately, my generation just doesn’t seem to care as much about bird feeding.

I hope my website can help change that. I’ve found birds to be exceptionally interesting and the more I learn about them, the more interesting they get!

Here is a simple house-style Purple Martin house.

Here is a four-pack of the “gourd”-style houses.

Here is a large kit, if you’re truly passionate about Purple Martins!

And, finally, this the Stokes Purple Martin Book, which people swear on as a guide for attracting Purple Martins.

Please, enjoy the small gallery below and leave a note in the comments!

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