Purple Martins Bring Color & Joy
Striking plumage, sweet songs and aerial acrobatics delight backyard birders
Writer: Conni Leigh James |Photography: August Selckmann
Hollowed-out gourds are poised high off the ground in rolling, rural fields in Mechanicsville. An aerial city of altered buckets waits on a waterfront property on St. George Island. Multi-chambered bird bungalows rest on tall poles in the heart of La Plata. These and many more quirky, sky-high birdhouse communities across Southern Maryland are waiting for that magic moment each spring.
The weather warms, and sometime between April 10 and 13, the first purple martin scouts arrive from South America, lively and loud, inspecting the various offerings that homeowners across the region have erected in hopes of luring these graceful, chattering flocks of aerial acrobats to their backyards.
Approximately four weeks later, the full colony of birds descend on the chosen sites, and a summer of song and shows begin.
“They are just happy birds, nice to be around,” says Jack Russell, a local waterman whose purple martin complex on St. George Island boasts about 30 nesting pairs each year. “They put the spirit of joy in people’s lives.”
Russell set out to attract the birds about 15 years ago, in part to control the insect population around his home. Martins eat dragonflies, moths, mosquitoes and other flying bugs. He buys large buckets for a dollar from local bakeries and grocery stores, drills a hole for a doorway and several more for ventilation, and paints the inside a dark color before stringing these makeshift bird condos high in the air.
“I’m like a Motel 6,” he jokes. “I put them up, and they show up.” The birds bring their own nesting materials and even clear out the old nests.
He is rewarded with the music of birdsong every morning.
A LITTLE HELP FROM HUMANS
Historically, purple martins nested exclusively in natural crevices in rock ledges or hollow trees, or in abandoned cavities carved out by woodpeckers and other birds. Because of the decline of these natural habitats and the proliferation of man-made nesting boxes, purple martins east of the Rockies today nest mainly in structures created for them by humans.
Russell used recordings of the birds’ song to initially attract them to his bucket city. Purple martins, members of the swallow family, can be finicky when selecting where they will nest, and not everyone is successful at luring the birds to their yards.
The Southern Maryland Audubon Society fields many calls from locals interested in creating a purple martin haven on their property.
“Many times, bird houses are installed in a wonderful open area, plenty of room for this swallow species to soar into a house, only to never be successful,” says Lynn Wheeler, past president and membership chair of the organization.
Wheeler worked on the campaign to get the town of La Plata certified as the first “Bird City” in the state of Maryland in February 2020, when the state launched its Bird City Maryland program, whose mission is “to make communities healthier for birds and people.”
As part of that process, Wheeler was integral to having purple martins proclaimed the official town bird of La Plata.
“For decades now, we have had two successful martin roosts smack dab in the middle of town. Not where you would think,” she says, referencing a successful, longtime colony near the La Plata Train Station Museum and another on the property of La Plata Mill & Supply. “Neither of these locations would have been on many birders’ list of suitable locations, but we certainly did learn otherwise.”
Purple martins are a favorite of backyard birders because of the striking iridescent purple plumage of the adult males, for their swooping, graceful flight, and for the fact that they generally get along well with their human “landlords.”
Russell estimates that about 2,500 chicks have been hatched and raised in the colony on his property. The birds have usually finished raising their young by around Aug. 1 each year, and another season of enjoying these friendly, feathered tenants comes to an end.
“One morning, I’ll walk down to the dock and it will be silent,” Russell says. •
WANT TO ATTRACT PURPLE MARTINS TO YOUR YARD?
According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, purple martins prefer open, treeless areas 30 to 100 feet away from human housing.
Bird houses should be mounted on poles that are 10 to 20 feet high and wrapped with mesh or other guards to discourage snakes and other predators from raiding the nests. Make sure the bird houses are available in early to mid-May.
Birds will prefer areas near fresh water and with a source of food (insects) so do not use insecticides in your yard if you are trying to attract purple martins.
A quick web search will yield many options for building or buying the specific types of houses that these birds prefer. If all else fails, Jack Russell recommends playing recordings of purple martins chirping to entice birds to your yard.
PURPLE MARTINS LOVING LOVEVILLE LEATHER’s LOCATION
Aaron at Loveville Leather on Parsons Mill Road in Leonardtown enjoys passing along what he has learned about purple martins.
He shows visitors to the shop a map of the United States which includes different zones and dates purple martins usually arrive. He has seen them as early as March 1 in Southern Maryland. This year, their arrival was later.
Aaron says that usually one or two show up early to scope out the area. When the purple martins arrive, Aaron can hear them from inside the shop. When the birds travel together you can really hear them, he says. Usually you will find purple martins near wet areas, open areas, and standing water and ponds. It’s best to put the bird houses in those areas.
The weather needs to be somewhat warm with bugs flying nearby. It’s not flowers that attract the birds; they are after the bugs. They fly around and catch flies, mosquitoes and dragonflies.
Aaron says that sometimes people wet mealworms and dried bugs, then flick them with a spoon. Doing this will train the birds to eat treats.
Loveville Leather has plastic gourds in various shapes selling for $25 each. The shop is also able to order parts to assemble a purple martin “hotel.”
Purple martins depend on humans for shelter. They rarely find shelter in the wild. The gourds have enough depth
so that hawks, vultures and eagles have trouble if they try to get into the gourd. Aaron also includes a snake guard at the base of each purple martin hotel to deter snakes from getting to the eggs.
Visitors to Loveville Leather have probably seen Goldilocks,
the resident golden retriever that enjoys sitting at
the store’s entrance. Even Goldilocks enjoys watching
the purple marlins, as do Loveville Leather patrons.