The Purple Martin Connection

East of the Rocky Mountains, Purple Martins almost exclusively nest in birdhouses provided by humans. This bond between man and bird did not always exist, of course. It evolved over centuries naturally and likely by accident. Now that Purple Martins are so dependent upon us for their housing, it becomes incumbent upon us to foster this uniquely beautiful relationship. Let us briefly explore how this bond became so strong, and examine the opportunity it gives us to step into our roles as stewards and caretakers – rather than ravagers – of the natural world.

Originally, Purple Martins nested in abandoned woodpecker holes, decaying trees, or wherever they could find a cavity big enough to contain their nest. Native Americans initiated the human connection with the birds. Gourds were hollowed out and hung from poles or tree branches to cure, to be later used as water vessels. The people were probably surprised when first they saw a pair of steel-blue martins making a cozy abode in their beverage ware!

Later, European colonists and frontiersmen took note of the ties between Purple Martins and the Natives. In 1831, a man named Alexander Wilson observed, “Even the solitary Indian seems to have a particular respect for this bird.” [“Thanks to Native Americans, Purple Martins Underwent a Complete Tradition Shift” – James R. Hill, III] The Native Americans may have nurtured the relationship with Purple Martins because of the massive amounts of insects they eat. (It is important to understand, though, that mosquitoes are not on the martins’ menu; that myth was an invention of unscrupulous marketers trying to sell more birdhouses!) It is also quite possible that the Natives simply enjoyed the aerobatic feats of these nimble flyers, as many people do today.

As people expanded into the Purple Martins’ territory, there were fewer and fewer places for martins and other birds to nest. Luckily, people already knew how to provide homes for the martins, at least in a rudimentary fashion.

However, our encroachment continued, and the pressure on Purple Martin populations increased exponentially. Urban expansion, suburban sprawl, road building, deforestation, river damming, and many of our other activities nearly spelled the end for the enchanting, gregarious martins.

Finally, concerned citizens began to try to reverse the downward trend in the number of Purple Martins. New types of housing were developed, eventually evolving into the multi-unit bird apartments that can now be seen all across the eastern half of the United States and southeastern Canada. The designs and specifications of Purple Martin birdhouses continue to change as we learn more about these wonderful birds. The large, mansion-like houses, made of wood, plastic, aluminum, or some combination of these, supplanted the natural gourds as the favorites of Purple Martin landlords; but the gourds, like the martins themselves, are making a comeback. Many people spend days carving and curing gourds to hang from wires or mount on poles. The birdhouse manufacturers have also thrown their hats into the ring, producing durable, attractive artificial Purple Martin gourds that the birds seem to love.

The Purple Martin enthusiasts began to spread the word about the plight of the birds, and, over time, more and more people ventured into the realm of Purple Martin landlording. The number of martins nesting in the U.S. and Canada has rebounded significantly, though the population is still meager in comparison to its former size.

The prevalence of competitors like European Starlings and English House Sparrows, coupled with the effects of human society will prevent Purple Martins from reestablishing their former number, but there is no reason why they cannot have a robust and healthy population. Their fate is now in our hands. We, who initiated the Purple Martin Connection so long ago, can make all the difference.