Purple Martins – Timing is Everything….

By Mickey Dufihlo

Part 1 of 2

We were excited when we observed several shiny, deep purple birds darting in and out of our martin house last May.  This was the first time Purple Martins have ever taken an interest in the house we erected 18 years ago.  They were catching insects with their wonderful aerial acrobatics and delighting us with their melodious song, but they did not seem to be nesting.  I dug out my dog-eared information on Purple Martins and found out it was really too late to be nesting in Brazoria County.  Normally, the birds in our area will nest and lay eggs within six weeks of the January arrival from Brazil, their winter home.  On a rare occasion, a few pairs will produce a second clutch along the Gulf Coast.  So why have my Purple Martins finally decided to use our aging, but still serviceable house late in the season?  The search for an answer to this question lead me to the rediscover some fascinating history, myths and information on attracting this bird.  I also found out that “timing is everything” with these birds.

Purple Martins

It is thought the Purple Martin might have been the first backyard bird.  Native Americans believed swallows (the Purple Martin is the largest of the swallow family north of Mexico) stole fire from the sun and brought it to the earth resulting in its forked tail feathers. For hundreds of years, the southeastern Indians hung hollow gourds around their villages to lure the birds.  The birds in turn would drive crows away from vegetable patches and vultures away from drying meats.  They also would give an alarm call at any sign of danger.  The human/bird interaction with Native Americans has existed for thousands of years and the custom was adopted by the colonists when they arrived in America.   It is speculated, over “time”, this long term interaction with humans contributed to the birds giving up their natural tendency to nest in cavities in dead trees and in cliffs. East of the Rockies, martins nest almost exclusively in human-supplied housing.

Purple martinhouse[1]

One trait the martins have that is also beneficial to humans is their voracious appetite for flying insects such as dragonflies, moths, flies, June bugs, etc. and maybe a few mosquitoes.  One of the myths associated with martins is they will consume large quantities of mosquitoes.  In fact, martins and mosquitoes do not cross paths, because martins feed high in the sky in the daytime and freshwater mosquitoes stay in low, sheltered, moist areas during the day.  A matter of timing……………..



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