The Purple Martin (Progne subis) is a passerine bird in the swallow family Hirundinidae. It is the largest swallow in North America. Despite its name, the purple martin is not truly purple. The dark blackish-blue feathers have an iridescent sheen caused by the refraction of incident light giving them a bright blue to navy blue or deep purple appearance. In some light they may even appear green in color.

Being migratory, their breeding range extends from central Alberta in Canada down through the central and eastern United States. Subspecies breed in Baja California, Arizona, and New Mexico. Most make a brief stopover in the Yucatán Peninsula or Cuba during pre-breeding migration to North America and during post-breeding migration before reaching their overwintering site in South America.

They are known for their speed, agility, and their characteristic mix of rapid flapping and gliding flight pattern. When approaching their nesting site, they will dive from the sky at great speeds with their wings tucked, just like the peregrine falcon does when hunting smaller birds.

The purple martin’s association with man goes back many years to the days when Native Americans hung gourds out for them. People later started erecting multi-compartment units in hopes of attracting this wonderful bird, and eventually martin houses made of other materials and plastic gourds began to be manufactured.

Over the years martins in the entire section of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains have become totally dependent on man for nesting sites. Since the fate of these beautiful birds is now in our hands, it is extremely important that we provide adequate housing in which they can raise their young, and also that we can properly manage it. Purple Martins migrate from the Amazon Valley in Brazil northward to North America. This means primarily all the states east of the Rock Mountain Chain, approximately 37 states and parts of the 6 Canadian provinces. Migrating martins can travel up to 7,000 miles. Migration Time Table: 5 months in the nesting Area, 3 months in Brazil, and 4 months in migration.

Often people with good intentions purchase a martin house or gourds, wanting to attract this bird, but they aren’t adequately prepared to be responsible landlords. You should be aware of some facts to better your chances of being successful. One important piece of knowledge is that the martin has natural predators, such as owls, hawks, snakes, and raccoons; predator guards can be obtained for use on the housing to help prevent them from killing the martins.

You should erect your housing in the most open area available. Martins will not inhabit a house placed under a tree because of the threat of owls, hawks, and other possible predators. It is recommended that the housing be at least 40-60 feet from any trees taller than the housing. Martins feel a sense of protection being close to people, so place your housing close to human dwellings in a place that offers adequate open area with enough room and time for them to be able to flee when they see aerial predators.

What can you as a martin landlord do to prevent this destruction from occurring at your martin colony? The key to getting and keeping a successful martin colony is to manage it properly. Since we at S&K Manufacturing, Inc. are concerned about the future of the purple martin, we have designed our new line of housing to help you successfully manage a martin colony. Our sturdy poles allow for lowering of the housing and therefore easy inspection to monitor the progress of each martin family and ensure that all is going well. The newly enlarged compartments in the house and larger size of the gourds promote better breeding success of the martins; they tend to raise more babies when provided with roomier nesting cavities.

In addition to the improvements already mentioned, another new feature is the crescent- shaped entrance holes that keep out virtually all starlings. In very rare instances, a starling that is smaller than normal might be able to enter the cavities; however, this is by far the exception. Although the entrance holes will prevent all or mostly all starlings from entering the cavities meant for martins, they will not deter house sparrows; this is because of the smaller size of these birds.

A responsible martin colony manager, however, can and should be vigilant about keeping them out of the housing. No bird except purple martins should be allowed in the martin house/gourds. Martins, in all likelihood, will not nest in housing in which another species has already established its territory; the martins will be chased off by the other birds. If you notice any birds other than martins trying to lay claim to the housing, plug up the holes if you don’t yet have martins and force the birds to go elsewhere. If they are native birds like Bluebirds and Tree Swallows, put up separate housing for them. But you should never allow house sparrows or starlings to get started building nests in houses or gourds that are much needed by the purple martin, whose population has dwindled in the past century. Law protects the purple martin, being native to this continent, but not the English house sparrow and European starling. Most people just simply are not aware of what damage these two non-native species are doing to our native cavity-nesting birds and ecosystem.

Visit the Purple Marting Conservation Association at

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