For the Birds: Memorial Day bird - Purple Martin

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Purple Martin, male
Photo by Keith Williamson

By Christine Southwick

The Purple Martin is the largest North American swallow, and one of the largest swallows in the world. Could it also have the largest Purple Heart?

These long-distance flock migrators arrive here in mid-April to May from as far away as Brazil and Argentina, and leave again in late summer. Rapid flyers, their long pointed wings perform both flaps and glides, as they feed on large flying insects (like dragonflies), which causes them to fly higher than other swallows and makes them difficult for birders to spot.

Purple Martin pair
Photo by Blair Bernson
Purple Martins have long associated with humans — First Nation tribes frequently hung gourds in their villages for these birds. In the eastern U.S., Purple Martin almost exclusively nest in those white man-made apartment-type bird houses, but here in western Washington they use natural cavities when available, or individual gourds (natural or artificial) when not. They do not like apartment living, preferring to be closer to the water.

Seasonally monogamous, both parents feed (and perhaps brood) their 4-5 young, until the young are able to catch their own food on the wing. The fledglings often return to their gourds for a few nights after their first flight.

In the last 60 years, their population here in western Washington has steeply declined since most of their natural cavities in the form of woodpecker holes and rotted piling have been lost due to prime waterfronts being claimed by human habitation.

Add the introduction of earlier-nesting European Starling and House Sparrows, plus pesticides poisoning the bugs they eat, and you have the reasons why Purple Martins are on the Washington At-Risk List.

The Purple Martin recovery story in western Washington is a prime example of how individuals can make an important difference.

Male feeding dragonfly to young while female watches
Photo by Kim Stark

Kevin Li started drilling and hanging gourds along many of this area’s waterways. When starlings and house sparrows started moving in, he plugged the holes until the rightful owners returned from their winter climes. The almost-vanished Seattle Purple Martins started to increase!

Kevin Li has passed away, and now other great local volunteers have taken up this important cause. The Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, plus a group down on the Columbia River are additional groups that I know have come to the rescue of the west coast Purple Martin.

Female and males using artificial gourds
Photo by Soo Hong

Purple Martin numbers are still far too low, but with help from bird lovers, this species may continue to survive.


Anonymous,  May 30, 2016 at 5:40 PM  

What waterways might support them? When should the gourds be hung?

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