Attracting Purple Martins To Your Garden

Attracting Purple Martins To Your Garden
by Robert Randolph

Purple Martins are the largest swallows in all of North America, measuring in at seven and a half inches long with the male of the species featuring stunning, iridescent purple colored feathers. Today, the subspecies of these songbirds are completely dependent upon human intervention east of the Rocky Mountains in the United States to ensure they aren’t in danger of becoming extinct. For this reason, many gardeners and homeowners work diligently at being conscientious landlords, providing the ideal nesting boxes for the Purple Martin to breed.

Here are some important factors to remember when trying to attract breeding Purple Martins to your garden:

The Right Place and Time

Picking the absolute right location is imperative for attracting martins as nesting boxes should be placed in the open-most spot, the farther away from trees the better, and no closer than 30 feet to human housing.

It is actually a myth that the first martins to arrive in the spring are “scouts” looking for the best new breeding sites before the rest of the flock arrives a few weeks later. Purple Martins will return to the same location year after year, provided they aren’t in danger of predators or overrun by other, larger species of birds. So, these “early birds” that are seen earliest in the year are either on their way to their usual nesting spot, or they’re simply just the first to arrive.

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The very first martins to arrive usually make their yearly debut around the first of February in the southernmost portion of the U.S. with some even arriving sooner in the middle of January in most of Florida. The majority of the sub-adult martins, last year’s hatchlings, will arrive four to six weeks later for the upper third of the continent, two weeks later for the middle third, and two weeks after that for the remaining third.

Regardless of your location, keep your martin house open through the end of August as the hatchlings from this year will be ready to find next year’s breeding place in late July or August.

The Best Housing

The best nest-boxes, birdhouses, or gourd-shaping houses for martins are painted white, or a very pale pastel as the birds are attracted to lighter colors, which also keeps the inside cool for the nestlings. Openings should be starling-resistant at no larger than 2-1/4″ in diameter, no smaller than 1-3/4″ and located one inch from the floor of the birdhouse.

7 x 12 inches is the optimum size for nesting boxes, although they may be as small as 6 x6 inches. If you’re buying a pre-made nest-box or building your own, be sure to check these measurements for the best results for attracting Purple Martins to your garden.

West of the Rockies, the nesting habits of martins are somewhat different than in other locations of the country as in the Pacific northwest, the birds will nest in single units and gourd-shaped boxes, but not in multiple, apartment-style boxes that Purple Martins in the east will use. Also, in the southwest, martins will nest exclusively in cacti that have “pre-drilled” holes thanks to another bird, the woodpecker.

The best housing for martins will also offer protection from the elements as well as predators, and should feature poles equipped with guards to keep creatures such as snakes and squirrels from the nests inside. Purple Martin birdhouses should be stored indoors for the winter months, or completely sealed up, as other birds, squirrels, and some insects will set up shop before the martins arrive the following spring.

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