Purple Martins Return

by Gary Mount

Four or five years ago, I was surprised to receive a Purple Martin house as a birthday present from my family. I love Purple Martins; they are migratory birds with some of the most interesting habits of any birds. I have been interested in Purple Martins for a long time, which started with my first martin house at my parents’ home near Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. I later received one built by my brother Bill Mount shortly after Pam and I bought Terhune Orchards 27 years ago.

Martin houses are literally apartment houses for birds. Purple Martins live in colonies and almost exclusively in housing built for them by humans. Some of the earliest martin housing was included in sketches made by New World explorers. Martin houses, in the form of hollow gourds, were pictured hanging near Native American homesites.

Purple Martin houses can be sets of “single family” dwellings hung near each other or “multifamily” units with 10, 20, or more attached dwellings. These are mounted on poles about 15 feet off the ground.

Neither of my earlier martin house experiences successfully attracted martins, but I was determined to be successful this time. It seems that the biggest factor in attracting martins conforms to the old real estate maxim: location, location, location. Martins don’t like to live near trees — they like to swoop and dive. They don’t like undergrowth near the base of the pole — too many predators such as raccoons or snakes can hide there, ready to climb the pole at night. Martins also like places with a good food supply — near a pond for instance. They eat tremendous numbers of insects (that’s one reason I like martins so much), catching them on the fly as they swoop and dive.

In addition to these common sense location guides, there came an unexpected one. Purple Martins like to be near people. They seem to like seeing people as they go about their daily tasks of eating every flying insect in the area. I almost made the mistake of putting my new “low income housing” in a field far from the farm buildings.

Purple Martins spend their winters very far south in Brazil. They migrate north, with the first ones arriving in the southern US — Texas or Louisiana — in February or March and to our area about April 1. The first ones to arrive are adult male martins, so black in color that they are almost purple. They check out the accommodations and, if they approve, hang around waiting for the rest of the family to arrive. Very early each morning, they fly high above the farm singing their dawn song.

As an as yet unproven theory suggests, the female and young adult martins, flying north at this later time, hear the song and are attracted to the site. The martins move in, sometimes evicting local squatters such as sparrows. They raise a family and are with us all summer, filling the air with their twangy chirping — recognized immediately by any martin enthusiast. In mid-August, they depart for their long journey south.

My first year, I didn’t get my new birdhouse put up soon enough to qualify as a “prime” location. My birthday is mid-May, and then I had to assemble and erect the thing — so many little parts! It was Memorial Day before it was ready for occupancy. To my surprise, martins arrived three days later. They were young adults, probably escaping crowded conditions elsewhere. Although they set up housekeeping, they were unsuccessful in raising a family. It was great having them around, and each year since we’ve been lucky to have several families visit for the summer. I have put up another apartment house and several fiberglass gourds as well. As I write this while returning from an Easter visit to our daughter Tannwen in San Francisco, I wonder who will get home first – Pam and me or the martins.

Please join us in enjoying the Purple Martins. You can watch the fun through the telescope we set up on the Farm Store porch or sit at a nearby picnic table. For additional information, visit www.purplemartin.org.