Purple martins – our first spring migrants

Published 11:44 am Monday, March 14, 2011

Purple martins are the largest of our swallows and amongst the most familiar of birds for many country people.

They have been associated with humans for many hundreds of years and now nest almost exclusively in man-made structures, such as natural and plastic gourds, as well as more elaborate wooden or metal martin houses.

Purple martins, and most members of the swallow family, feed exclusively on flying insects, from dragonflies to gnats and midges, so it is no wonder they are considered valuable birds to attract to one’s property.

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They are about the size of a European starling, but different in proportions with longer wings and a forked tail. They also share, with all other swallows, the typical swallow flight of soaring, interspersed with flapping and long glides.

Males are glossy purplish-blue in coloration, while females and young birds are dark above and gray below.

Purple martins are amongst the earliest of our spring migrants to arrive back on their breeding grounds, often arriving in early to mid March here in the western part of the Carolinas. By early April the majority of the local population should be back at the colonies.

After they have finished nesting, often by mid-late July, many will start to move south towards their wintering grounds in Brazil, and by August most of our local birds will have moved out.

Here in the Carolinas, purple martins are common throughout, but are absent from heavily wooded areas.

Martins may establish colonies in suitable areas throughout the piedmont and coastal plain, although they are much more restricted in the mountains.

To attract purple martins to your property, you need to place the nest-sites at least 15 feet away from structures in open areas near human habitation, preferably with water nearby.

Martins like enough space to fly around their houses and, if necessary, may range over a wide area to feed, bathe and drink. Place houses 8-20 feet off the ground.

In our area here in the southern foothills we have colonies in the Landrum area and in more open areas with ponds and small lakes.

Purple martins are still common in many parts of the Piedmont, but declines have been noticed in several mountain and piedmont counties, and a concerted effort is being made to continue to keep this attractive insect-eating bird a regular breeding species throughout the Carolinas.

Simon Thompson has lived in WNC for the past 16 years. He owns and operates his own birding tour company, Ventures Birding Tours. www.birdventures.com

He and Chris also own and operate the Asheville Wild Birds Unlimited Store. For more information on any of the birding activities in the area, drop by the store or check his website at www.asheville.wbu.com.