Purple Martin

The Purple Martin is Kentucky’s Largest swallow. The early arrivals, also known as “scouts”, typically return to Kentucky mid to late March. These “scouts” can be spotted flying around nearly a month before the rest of the colony in an attempt to claim the best nesting sites. They are usually the older and more experienced male birds. These dark colored males have a blue-ish purple iridescent sheen in the sunlight that gives them their name as the Purple Martin. The females and first-year males are more dull and sport a gray to white belly. The adult males are actually the only dark bellied North American Swallow. This makes it easier to identify them while they are in flight than any other swallow. After the arrival of the scouts, the rest of the colony begins their migration north. As we all know, with the warmer spring weather of North America, comes the return of flying insects. The emergence of these winged insects drives the Purple Martins right to us. Their diet consists primarily of butterflies, beetles, moths, horseflies, wasps and dragonflies. They will also eat some mosquitoes. Purple Martins are aerial insectivores, meaning they catch all of their food in flight. This diet makes them very beneficial to have close to home or even near your cabin. To assist in the digestion of insects’ exoskeleton, these birds need a little bit of grit. Putting out crushed eggshells is a great way to help them out and give them an easy source of grit.

Purple Martins are a colony-nesting bird. They prefer multi compartment houses or closely hung together gourds. Whether it be houses or gourds, they are very attracted to the color white. Outside of natural attraction, it also keeps the nestling cool from the sun’s beaming rays. It has been found that Purple Martins in the US rely almost exclusively on man made housing.

Despite their size, these birds often find it difficult to defeat their rivals in the fight for nesting sites. House Sparrows and European Starlings are much more aggressive and can easily kill a Purple Martin to win a nesting site. Without our intervention of man made nesting, these birds would struggle to survive. After securing the perfect nesting site, the female will lay 4-7 white eggs late April to May. The incubation period is 12-13 days, and then both male and female will begin to bring their nestlings food. A couple will produce one brood per year.

At the end of their breeding season, the colony as a whole will begin their migration back to South America where they will spend the winter. These colonies are usually large and often seen roosting all together. The largest known colony included 700,000 Purple Martins. Colonies of this size are known to be pretty noisy, as you can imagine. If a couple had a successful brood, they will return to the same nesting site the following year, starting the process all over again. Studies from the PMCA found that a female Purple Martin traveled from the Amazon to Pennsylvania in 13 days. This means that she had an average of 358 miles per day. These long-distance migrants typically travel across the Gulf of Mexico, but have also been seen flying over Mexico and through Central America. The Purple Martin endures a long journey to get to Mammoth Cave Kentucky, so we are happy to provide them suitable and safe nesting sites.

Interesting Facts

  • After the Purple Martins became a back yard bird, their popularity expanded tremendously. This has led to a group of people that refer to themselves as “Martin Enthusiasts”.
  • A Purple Martin Couple will bring food to their nestlings up to 60 times a day.
  • These birds are greatly impacted by the weather. If there are consistent periods of cold or rain, the insect population will diminish. This can impact entire colonies. If the weather persists for longer than 2 or 3 days, the entire colony can die off.
  • Purple Martins have other enemies besides the House Sparrows and European Starling. This includes: racoons, hawks, owls, snakes, cats and squirrels. They are a threat to the birds and their nests.
  • Purple Martins not only eat while in flight, but also drink. You can often spot them diving town towards the lake and skimming the top to get a sip of water.

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