Now is the time to put up gourds and houses for purple martins, the only
bird species in eastern North America totally dependent on humans for nest
"Purple martins are accustomed to humans and seem to prefer nesting close
to man," said Lex Glover, wildlife technician with the Wildlife Section of
the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR). "In fact, martins have a
long list of desirable habits. They nest in colonies and have fascinating
social behavior, their vocalizations are beautiful, and
they are extremely graceful and acrobatic in flight."
Although purple martins migrate to South America for the winter, Glover
said they remain faithful to their colony sites from one summer to the
next, often returning about the same date each year. Since some martins
arrive as early as mid-February, now is the time to put up purple martin
gourds and houses.
Native Americans were enticing purple martins to nest within their villages
centuries before the Europeans settled here. Indians suspended hollowed-out
gourds from their dwellings to attract the birds, and the early settlers
later adopted this custom. While martins once nested in old woodpecker
cavities and hollow trees, in the eastern United States they are now
entirely dependent upon man for nesting sites.
Purple martins are voracious insect eaters. And although martins do not
consume large numbers of mosquitoes, as do several species of bat that
patrol the sky during nighttime hours when mosquitoes are most active,
martins nevertheless prey on many noxious insects such as flies, wasps,
beetles, stinkbugs and leafhoppers.
Purple martin gourds or houses should be in place for breeding birds by
mid-March, Glover said. However, houses and gourds can be put up through
the summer, since non-breeding martins and sub-adult birds, and even
late-summer migrants, may find these houses and return to nest in them the
following year. The martin houses should be on poles 12 to 15 feet high in
open locations away from trees, in habitats such as those found on golf
courses, school grounds, orchards or agricultural fields.
In general, no trees or buildings should be within about 40 feet of the
martin pole in any direction. Most people living in town will not be able
to attract martins because of too many trees and obstructions, Glover said,
but pond shore lines and marinas provide excellent martin nesting sites.
"Get started with a few natural gourds, or buy plastic ones," Glover said.
"They are less expensive than houses, and they can be attached to a line
strung between two points."
Keep the martin gourds or houses cleaned out after the nesting season, and
discourage house sparrows and starlings by removing nest material. When
using natural gourds, in addition to making an entrance hole with a
diameter of 2 1/8 inches, drill a few small holes in the bottom of the
gourd to keep rainwater from accumulating.
To receive more information on purple martins and martin gourd house plans,
call the Purple Martin Conservation Association in Edinboro, Pa., at (814)
734-4420, send an e-mail to
firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Purple Martin Conservation Association
Web site at
- Written by Greg Lucas -