Bird GuideSwallowsPurple Martin

At a Glance

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.
Category
Swallow-like Birds, Swallows
Conservation
Low Concern
Habitat
Coasts and Shorelines, Desert and Arid Habitats, Fields, Meadows, and Grasslands, Forests and Woodlands, Lakes, Ponds, and Rivers, Urban and Suburban Habitats
Region
California, Eastern Canada, Florida, Great Lakes, Mid Atlantic, New England, Northwest, Plains, Rocky Mountains, Southeast, Southwest, Texas, Western Canada
Behavior
Direct Flight, Flap/Glide, Swooping
Population
9.300.000

Range & Identification

Migration & Range Maps

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).

Description

7-8 1/2" (18-22 cm). Our biggest swallow. Angular, pointed wings, forked tail. Male glossy blue-black all over, female and young grayer below, with white belly. Starlings are somewhat similar and will nest in martin houses, but have longer bills, browner wings, different behavior.
Size
About the size of a Crow, About the size of a Robin
Color
Black, Blue, Gray, Purple, White
Wing Shape
Long, Pointed, Tapered
Tail Shape
Notched, Square-tipped

Songs and Calls

Liquid gurgling warble. Also a penetrating tee-tee-tee.
Call Pattern
Falling, Flat, Undulating
Call Type
Buzz, Chirp/Chip, Hi, Trill, Whistle

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.

Behavior

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.

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.

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.

Climate Vulnerability

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.

Climate Map

Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Purple Martin. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.

Climate Threats Facing the Purple Martin

Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.

Explore More