Purple martin, life history, all about birds – cornell lab of ornithology
Putting up martin houses used to be so common that John James Audubon used them to choose his lodgings for the night. In 1831, he remarked, «Almost every country tavern has a martin box on the upper part of its sign-board; and I have observed that the handsomer the box, the better does the inn generally prove to be.»
Native Americans hung up empty gourds for the Purple Martin before Europeans arrived in North America. Purple Martins in eastern North America now nest almost exclusively in birdhouses, but those in the West use mostly natural cavities.
European Starlings and House Sparrows often push Purple Martins out of local areas by taking over all of the nest sites, including houses that people put up specifically for the martins.
Purple Martins roost together by the thousands in late summer, as soon as the chicks leave the nest. They form such dense gatherings that you can easily see them on weather radar. It’s particularly noticeable in the early morning as the birds leave their roosts for the day, and looks like an expanding donut on the radar map.
Despite the term “scout” used for the first returning Purple Martins, the first arriving individuals are not checking out the area to make sure it is safe for the rest of the group. They are the older martins returning to areas where they nested before. Martins returning north to breed for their first time come back several weeks later. The earlier return of older individuals is a common occurrence in species of migratory birds.
The Purple Martin not only gets all its food in flight, it gets all its water that way too. It skims the surface of a pond and scoops up the water with its lower bill.
The Purple Martin Conservation Association supports the study of the Purple Martin and provides information on its website. The Purple Martin Society of North America also provides information on martins and martin houses.
The oldest Purple Martin on record was at least 13 years, 9 months old, banded in 1933 and found in 1947. It lived in Illinois.