Becoming a Purple Martin Landlord
By: Julie Day
Ever wondered about those large collections of birdhouses and gourds high up on poles in some yards? They’re purple martin houses, and some homeowners – who call themselves “landlords” – put a great deal of care into attracting, hosting, and tending to these birds.
Purple martins and humans have enjoyed a companionable relationship dating back to the Native Americans, and a purple martin house makes a great addition to your yard or garden.
About Purple Martins
- Purple martins are members of the swallow family. They eat large quantities of insects, which they hunt and eat on the fly, making purple martins excellent contributors to organic pest control in your garden! Contrary to popular belief, purple martins don’t eat many mosquitoes, since they hunt during the day and high in the sky where mosquitoes aren’t found.
- In the eastern U.S., purple martins are completely dependent upon human-provided nesting sites. Purple martin “landlords” enjoy a relationship with the birds, but they’re also participating in a conservation effort. On the west coast, martins use both manmade nesting boxes and abandoned woodpecker cavities.
- Martins migrate to South America for the winter and return to North America in the spring.
- Purple martins are known for their happy, gurgling song, and for their affinity toward humans. They’re one of the few birds that seem comfortable, rather than frightened, around people.
Purple Martin Houses
If you’re adding a purple martin house to your yard, you’ll find quite a variety available made of wood, metal, plastic, or gourds. Houses should have nesting compartments that are at least 6” wide and tall, and up to a foot deep. The best houses are white, with ventilation holes and crescent-shaped openings to discourage other birds from entering.
Attracting a martin colony can be a tricky proposition, so here are some tips to increase your chances of success:
- Locate Martin Houses in Open Areas: Martins are often targeted by predatory birds such as hawks and owls. They are attracted to nesting sites at least 50’ from neighboring trees, for more protection (and room to escape) from predators.
- Enjoy Martins Close to Home: Martins quickly grow accustomed to human presence. While their nest boxes need to be in the open, they can also be fairly close to houses and areas where people are working and moving about (and where you can enjoy them!)
- Protect Martins from Competing Birds: Martins compete for nest space with European starlings and English house sparrows, and the growing populations of these birds has coincided with decreases in the martin population. Diligent landlords work to protect nesting sites from these competing birds. Strategies include closing up the houses for the winter and opening them only when the martins return, choosing houses with crescent-shaped openings that deter starlings, and physically chasing away and removing the nests of competitors.
- Conduct Martin House Nest Checks: Serious martin landlords put the houses on adjustable poles, so they can lower the houses and inspect the nests to keep track of each year’s colony. With weekly nest checks, you can become very familiar with your martin colony and can take steps to protect them from predators and insect infestations.
Martin enthusiasts take landlording very seriously, getting to know – and protecting – each and every hatchling in the nest. While you may have good luck with simply installing a martin house, a successful martin colony usually takes some special attention and effort. Here are some resources to help you get started: