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The Binocular Advisor

How to Succeed as a
Purple Martin Landlord

The first time that purple martins sailed in and flew around my gourds on a pole, I was amazed at their musical and entertaining chatter. It seemed to embody happiness.

Purple Martin Adult MaleIf you live in North America east of the Rockies, purple martins probably nest somewhere fairly nearby. And if you fulfill their needs, you have a good chance of purple martins moving in to the housing you provide.

For those of us who are just starting out with purple martins, there is a certain amount of anxiety as we eagerly await the first pair of martins to accept our housing and begin their nest.

Because that's the name of the game. Getting the first purple martins to move in. Until that happens, we're just wannabe landlords.

Purple Martin Adult MaleOnce a pair of purple martins accept our housing and raises a family in it, our colony is on its way.

The next year, the same birds will return. By that time the males will be in their glossy blue-black plumage, and they will look handsome as they perch on their houses. The photo at left, of an adult male at left, was taken by Chuck Abare, whose website has loads of information about purple martins. (Click the picture for a larger version of it.)

Purple Martin Young MaleThe second year, your first tenants' offspring may return with them as well. The young males will look mottled, as shown in Chuck Abare's picture at left. (Click the picture for a larger version of it.) With proper care, the colony will grow larger year by year.

Fortunately, a lot of people have been studying exactly what purple martins require. And the better we can fulfill their needs, the more likely they are to become our tenants.

So here's what purple martins need

1. Colonial living

Purple martins nest in colonies of 2 to 200 pairs. So give them clustered housing.

You can start with three or four units and add more as your colony expands. The best thing to potential nesters is martins already nesting there. That's why it's crucial to make the new housing as ideal as possible, in order to get that all-important first pair of birds.

2. House of wood, gourd, plastic, or metal

Purple Martins are not too picky about the material for their birdhouses. Many kinds of purple martin houses are available. Here are some possibilities:

  • grow your own birdhouse gourds
  • build a wooden apartment house
  • purchase ready-made martin houses
  • hang plastic gourds that mimic natural ones

SuperGourd for martinsPlastic "gourds" called SuperGourds make great purple martin houses. they come with rain guards and clean-out access doors. SuperGourds appeal strongly to martins and seem to result in excellent nesting success. And they certainly are beautiful!

Home up high

A purple martin house must be mounted on a pole or post at least 10 feet high. Don't attach it to a tree, because cats and raccoons could easily climb to the nests, and purple martins won't move in.

Proper martin houses are on poles that can be raised and lowered vertically for inspection. Most systems utilize telescoping poles or a winch. A winch system is easier to use, because the martin houses can be heavy when they're full of nests and eggs or babies.

A popular kind of martin housing with a winch is the Lonestar Pole and Gourd Rack. We recommend it with SuperGourds, but any kind of gourds can be used.

A house with a view

Location is crucial for purple martins. Their houses need to be in an open area so they can sail straight into the houses from at least two directions. Put their house in the middle of your biggest open area.

They don't want to maneuver through trees or dodge telephone wires. No trees taller than the height of the martin house should be within 60 feet of the colony.

Where they can see you

The purple martin house should be close to your own home. Purple martins want to see people near their nests. (They know that human activity offers them protection against predators. Here's how it might have started, long ago.)

Near water

The birds will fly a couple of miles to water if necessary, but they prefer to nest within a half mile of a lake or other water. I know people in my small town of Fairfield, Iowa, who got martins even though there was no water in sight. But the town reservoir was only half a mile away.

Roomy rooms

Purple Martin NestEach purple martin compartment should be at least 6" x 6" x 12". Some martin houses are sold that are only 6" x 6" x 6". Research shows that this is too small for purple martins to lay a full clutch of eggs (up to 7) and raise the young. You can find martin houses for sale that are only 6" x 6" x 6", but we do not recommend them. The SuperGourds are ideal.

Good management

Purple MartinDon't buy a purple martin house if it doesn't provide for you open it up to clean out the compartments. You need to be able to get in there and make sure there are no house sparrows or starlings nesting inside.

All good purple martin houses allow access to the landlord!

Don't be intimidated by the task of examining the nests. The purple martins won't mind in the least. Remember, they like people. And they will have greater nesting success if we do our job. Besides, it just about the most fun thing in the world to look into the martin nest and see the baby birds inside.

Safe from enemies

A purple martin's worst enemies are two aggressive, non-native birds that have been introduced into North America — the house sparrow (below, left) and the starling (below, right).

House Sparrow        Starling

Both covet purple martin houses and will take them over if the landlords let them. If the martin house is to succeed, the landlord must check the house every few days (or even daily in some cases) and remove any starlings or sparrows who try to build there.

Predator GuardAnd for protection from cats, raccoons, and snakes, a purple martin house requires a predator guard around the pole near its bottom. (You can see a predator guard around the pole in the photo up in the middle of the page.)

How it all began
SuperGourds - the best housing for purple martins
Deluxe Gourd Rack
The Pole and Winch
The Alamo martin house
When to Put up Purple Martin Housing


Copyright 2008 Diane Porter
Flying purple martin photos © 2007 Michael & Diane Porter

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