Bird Lady Blog

January 1, 2016

Purple Martins


Purple Martin

Purple Martin

On a recent Saturday afternoon I went to Lake Odell to see if I could get some inspiration for my next article.  It was a lovely day, with the sun getting lower into the west, so perfect for bird viewing across the water.  I was not disappointed – there was an Osprey hunting, and I witnessed it take two dives.  Its second dive was successful, as it came up with a fish in its talons and then flew across the lake to a tree to eat its dinner.

I next started looking at the swallows and easily identified the Tree Swallows and the Violet-Green Swallows, but then paused and thought, “What is THAT one?”  There was a small number of larger and very dark swallows flying that I didn’t recognize.  They were noisy, and some of them landed in the tree tops to the left of me, so I was able to get a better look through my binoculars.  I took out my iPhone and looked up swallows on my two birding aps.  Finally, I thought “Oh my gosh, those are Purple Martins!”  This was a species I had never identified in Munds Park and really didn’t think I would ever see here.  The last time I saw Purple Martins was in Memphis at the Mississippi River before we went to visit Graceland (yes, to see Elvis Presley’s estate, which was a very fun trip for us.)

Purples Martins are loved by many people across the United States, mostly in the East where they are much more common than out West.  When you see large bird houses with many units – typically 10-20 entrance holes and usually mounted high atop a pole – that is a Purple Martin house.  After doing some research on-line, I learned fascinating facts about these birds.

  • Purple Martins are secondary cavity nesters – meaning they don’t make their own cavities like woodpeckers, for example, and instead use natural cavities in trees or cliffs or ones make by other birds. However, the birds in the Eastern U.S. are almost now exclusively artificial home nesters – they use man-made structures.  Native Americans started this phenomena centuries ago when they hung dried out, empty gourds with a hole drilled in it for the birds.  Today it is thought that if humans did not supply Purple Martins with artificial homes, the species would entirely disappear from the Eastern U.S.
  • In the Western U.S., however, Purple Martins still tend to use natural cavities versus man-made multi-compartment housing. I have noticed Purple Martin housing on at least one property around the Pinewood Country Club but never have seen it being used.  The birds in the West tend to stay near water – for their source of flying-insect food – and they like areas with tall pines and cottonwoods.  In other parts of Arizona with the right conditions they will nest in cavities in cacti.
  • Purple Martins eat only insects, which they catch in flight. There is a common misconception that they devour mosquitoes.  They fly much higher than mosquitoes do and they feed mostly during the daytime hours, when mosquitoes are not active, so mosquitoes are not part of their diet.
  • I could go on and on, but instead for now I will point you to the Purple Martin Conservation Association, a non-profit association devoted entirely to the conservation of this species. The website is purplemartin.org.   I hope to share more information about the Purple Martins in future articles.
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