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Purple martins are one of America's favorite birds. Their arrival each spring is a much heralded event in many backyards and their departure each fall marks the passing of another year for many. In the eastern U.S. purple martins nest almost exclusively in purple martin houses and gourds provided by man. In the west they nest more regularly in natural cavities.

Male purple martin. Photo by
Bill Horn

Purple Martin Scouts:
Scouts are the earliest arrivals each year. They are the oldest members of the population and head north each year to claim the best nesting locations. Scouts can be either male or female birds.

Purple martins summer and nest in the eastern half of South Dakota, and can be found throughout the state duing migration. Look for scouts to start arriving in early April. Martins move north as the weather warms and insect populations start to increase so the arrival time will vary from year to year and from one part of the state to another.

Purple martins winter in South America. The journey can be as long as 5000 miles each way, each year! Martins follow at least three different paths as they return each spring. Some move through Mexico on their way to the West Coast. Others cross the Gulf of Mexico, leaving from the Yucatan Peninsula or take a route through the Caribbean islands to arrive in Florida.

Fall migration can start as early as mid-July in some parts of the country. In Florida migrants can be seen into September or October, with isolated reports even later in the the year. During the fall migration flocks of thousands of martins can form for the long trip south.

During the winter season these birds are apparently concentrated chiefly in the Amazon Valley of Brazil (Manaqueri, Barra do Rio Negro, and Itaituba) but are found in other parts of South America.

Martin nests typically have from five to six white eggs. One egg is laid each day at sunrise and no days are skipped until the egg-laying stops. Incubation lasts about 15 days but may last longer in cool weather. Purple martins fledge about 25-35 days after hatching.

Visit the Purple Martin section of the main Birdzilla Web site for information on martin houses, attracting purple martins and becoming a good purple martin landlord.

Finally, here's a glimpse at what noted ornithologist Alexander Sprunt Jr. said about purple martins in the Bent Life History series:

"It has always seemed to me that literature has been somewhat chary of the purple martin. Song and story have long stressed the advent of robin, bluebird, and goose as heralds of spring, and so they are, but is the martin any less so? True, it comes somewhat later than these others, but who can fail to thrill when, on waking early one morning, one hears the rich, gurgling calls of the first martin! It is a signal that spring is really at hand, indeed, at one's very door. When the martins come, can summer be far behind? This largest of the swallows, in its handsomely glossy livery, whether slurred by literature or not, has ken a favorite with humanity for many generations. Even before the White man came to America's shores it was a dooryard bird in Indian villages, and its status as such is unchanged today. It is, beyond all doubt, the "bird-box" species of this country. Its range is extensive, almost universal indeed, and it occurs from coast to coast and border to border. Young and old admire it, encourage it, and protect it, and those who have a word of criticism for it are few and far between. Alexander Wilson said that, in his day, he never found but one man who disliked the martin, and many a modern ornithologist will have had the same experience, if indeed it can be matched! Some birds occupy high pedestals in human regard, typified by the robin in the North and the mockingbird in the South, but in North and South the purple martin comes and goes as a welcome arrival and regretful departure; an always invited avian neighbor. Few are those anywhere who would fail to subscribe heartily to the wish: may its tribe increase." (Mr. Sprunt and Mr. Wilson are two of America's best known and most respected early ornithologists.) - P.O. Box 181 - McKinney, TX 75070
Phone: 972-562-7432
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