Photo: Dr. Michael Stubblefield/Vireo

Purple Martin

Progne subis

Graceful in flight, musical in its pre-dawn singing, this big swallow is one of our most popular birds. Almost all Purple Martins in the east now nest in birdhouses put up especially for them. Martin housing has a long history: some Native American tribes reportedly hung up hollow gourds around their villages to attract these birds. Purple Martins migrate to South America for the winter, but before leaving, they may gather to roost in groups of thousands in late summer.
Conservation status Has declined seriously in parts of the west, and currently declining in the east. Reasons are not well known, but competition with starlings for nest sites may be involved.
Family Swallows
Habitat Towns, farms, semi-open country near water; in west, also mountain forest, saguaro desert. In the east, breeds in any kind of semi-open area where nest sites are provided, especially near a pond or river. More local in the west, with isolated colonies breeding around woodland edges, clearings in mountain forest, and lowland desert with giant saguaro cactus.
Graceful in flight, musical in its pre-dawn singing, this big swallow is one of our most popular birds. Almost all Purple Martins in the east now nest in birdhouses put up especially for them. Martin housing has a long history: some Native American tribes reportedly hung up hollow gourds around their villages to attract these birds. Purple Martins migrate to South America for the winter, but before leaving, they may gather to roost in groups of thousands in late summer.
Photo Gallery
  • adult male
  • adult female
  • adult male
  • adult female
  • juvenile
Feeding Behavior

Forages almost entirely in the air. May forage very low over water, or quite high at times. Occasionally walks about on ground to pick up insects, perhaps mostly in harsh weather.


Eggs

4-5, sometimes 3-8. White. Incubation is by female, 15-18 days. Young: Both parents feed nestlings. Young leave nest about 26-31 days after hatching.


Young

Both parents feed nestlings. Young leave nest about 26-31 days after hatching.

Diet

Insects. Feeds on a wide variety of flying insects, including many wasps and winged ants, and some bees; also many true bugs, flies (including house flies and crane flies), beetles, moths, and butterflies. Dragonflies may be an important part of diet. Also eats some spiders. The old claim of martins eating "2,000 mosquitoes a day" apparently has no basis in fact.


Nesting

Males return to nesting areas first in spring, establish nesting territories. Usually nests in colonies, especially in east, where almost all are in multiple-roomed nest boxes put up for them. Western martins may nest in looser colonies or as isolated pairs. Male will sometimes have more than one mate. Nest: Natural sites are in cavities, mostly old woodpecker holes, in trees (or in giant cactus in southwest). In the east, most martins now use nest boxes. Sometimes nests in holes in buildings or cliffs. Nest (built by both sexes) is cup of leaves, grass, twigs, debris, and usually mud. Nest may have raised dirt rim in front to help keep eggs from rolling out.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
Learn more about these drawings.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

A long-distance migrant, most wintering in Amazon Basin. Returns very early in spring in the east (often in February in southern states), usually later in spring in the west (mainly April and May).

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Migration

A long-distance migrant, most wintering in Amazon Basin. Returns very early in spring in the east (often in February in southern states), usually later in spring in the west (mainly April and May).

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Liquid gurgling warble. Also a penetrating tee-tee-tee.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.

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