Super-sized swallows: Purple Martins

Purple Martins are, indeed, members of the family of swallows and the largest swallow. And boy are they a purple, at least the males like the one in photo above are. They nest across much of the central and eastern and some western parts of the U.S. and a small section of Canada but spend their winters all the way down in So America.

Female Purple Martins, shown in the photo just above, are much duller and they have varying amounts of gray in their plumage plus some whitish on their bellies.

Purple Martins are what is called ‘colonial nesters’–that is, they nest in colonies with sometimes dozens together.
While they nest in natural cavities in the West, they are almost always in nest boxes and special martin houses in the East. If you live in the East you can help them by providing the type of safe and appropriate housing they need. The National Audubon Society describes their housing needs as follows:

  • Martins prefer housing mounted on a pole 10 to 17 feet high and placed 30 to 120 feet from human housing. It should also be at least 40 to 60 feet away from nearby trees in order to provide a clear glide path for approaching martins. Nest compartments that are 12 inches deep and 6 inches wide provide additional safety from predators.


These birds are totally insect eaters and many people like having them nest near their houses so they can help keep down the insect population. There is even a Purple Martin Conservation Association that has a website with lots of information about being a ‘good landlord’, attracting them to your yard and more.

I took these photos of the birds on a martin house just yesterday (April 10) at a private ranch in the Texas Hill Country. They don’t nest where I live in Colorado so I like to watch them when I travel to places where they are found.

Are you a Purple Martin ‘landlord’?


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