The purple martin is the largest North American swallow and is a highly desirable backyard bird. Eastern populations, in fact, are almost entirely dependent on birdhouses and thousands of birders become purple martin "landlords" each year as they monitor extensive colonies.
- Bill: Stubby, straight, dark
- Size: 7.25-8.5 inches long with 16-inch wingspan, forked tail
- Colors: Blue-black, gray, white, iridescent
- Markings: Dimorphic species. Males are dark blue-black overall with glossy iridescence that may show blue, purple or dark green hues. Females have a blue-gray head with a dingy gray collar and forehead. Back, wings and tail are also blue-gray. Underparts are gray or white flecked with darker gray. Eyes, legs and feet are dark for both genders.
Habitat and Migration:
Purple martins are common swallows in open country including grassy fields and near lakes, ponds or streams. Summer ranges include the eastern half of the United States and southern portions of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. More isolated western populations can be found along the Pacific coast from central California to Canada as well as in Arizona, near the Great Salt Lake and in Baja California and central Mexico. These birds are neotropical migrants and spend winters in South America extending from Venezuela through Brazil to northern Argentina.
Purple martins have a musical chirping call with a raspy or rattling quality that is often heard before dawn or during flight. Tempos can vary widely, but many extended songs have a repeated warbling phrase.
These are social birds often found initially in pairs but can band together in extensive colonies for nesting and roosting, particularly when staging prior to migration. Purple martins eat and drink almost exclusively in flight, though they will forage on the ground for insects on rare occasions.
Purple martins are monogamous birds and a mated pair will produce 1-3 broods of 3-8 eggs each during the summer nesting season. The female parent incubates the eggs for 16-18 days and continues to brood the altricial young for 25-30 days until they are ready to leave the nest. During the young birds' growth period, both parents will bring food to the nest.
Attracting Purple Martins:
In proper habitats, these birds are easily attracted to appropriate purple martin birdhouses including colonial structures and gourd houses. Birders hoping to attract purple martins should carefully manage populations of European starlings and house sparrows that can overtake nesting sites. Birders should also avoid pesticide sprays that may eliminate these birds' food sources.