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It’s in your nature: Purple martins

Fairly common nesters in the Times News coverage area are a large swallow species, the purple martins. Purple martin males are an iridescent blue/black color, often appearing to be a glossy black. The females and immatures are grayer with only a hint of blue. Martin cousins, the barn, cliff, tree and rough-winged swallows, are sleeker in body shape.

The purple martins are chunkier birds. They are almost 8 inches in length, about an inch or more larger than the other species. The martin’s wings are a bit longer.

Purple martins are colonial nesters referring to the fact that they nest close together in martin nest boxes placed by bird fanciers. A martin box with 8, 10 or more nesting holes will sometimes have almost that many pairs utilizing them.

In contrast, if I erect blue bird nest boxes in a field of an acre or more, the boxes unused by bluebird pairs become valuable commodities. I have watched tree swallows “battle” over the other nest boxes. It seems like such a waste of energy, because eventually, one box will finally be claimed and then the dominant tree swallow allows another to nest close by. Purple martins prefer the “close quarters.”

My first exposure to purple martins was at a popular Schuylkill County ice cream stand. The owners apparently were aware of the tremendous appetite for insects that the martins have and they welcome nature’s help at controlling flying insect pests.

The numerous martin nest boxes were bristling with activity as both the male and females were busy making trip after trip with beaks full of insects for their young. I’m noting here that you will see tree swallows, cliff swallows and barn swallows feeding rather close to the fields or tree tops where they too snatch up insects.

Purple martins, the largest member of the swallow family, can eat larger insects and their feeding habits have them flying much higher than the other swallows. I observed a few martins flying over East Penn only after hearing their twittering. I finally looked much higher in the sky to find them.

I have not tried to erect martin nest boxes, but if you do, here are some helpful hints. They really prefer nesting near ponds or lakes and that seems to be a critical factor in attracting them. They also like open areas with no trees taller than their cavities within 40 feet of the nests.

The other concern is starling interference. It is important that you keep the nest openings closed until the last week of April to discourage starling nesting. Your pole supporting the box may have to be telescoping or pivot at the base to accomplish this.

Since martins are rather early to arrive, it is important to get them open by that date.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: Historically, the most influential animal of North America’s Grasslands, was the ____. A. locust, B. prairie, dog C. American bison, D. gray wolf.

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: Fast growers, young cuckoos leave the nest about seven or eight days after they hatch.

Contact Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com.

This female martin has been banded, note its lower right leg. Banding has determined that purple martins spend the winter in the dwindling habitats of Brazil, Bolivia and northern Argentina. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
A duller-colored female flanks the iridescent male. Note the long wings characteristic of martins.
Male and female purple martins at an East Penn Township nesting box.
A nature heads-up: Look for great egrets in your travels the next week or two. I photographed this one at the Phifer Ice Dam about two weeks ago. I have seen them on Lizard Creek, Franklin Township, and Northern Lehigh County.