Purple martins are beautiful, beloved songbirds, and these popular swallows are highly sought after as backyard birds, particularly in the eastern United States. But how much do you really know about purple martins? There is more to these birds than just pretty plumage!
Purple Martin Trivia
- With a length of 7-8 inches and a wingspan up to 15 inches, the purple martin is the largest swallow in North America and one of the largest of the world's roughly 90 swallow and martin species.
- Despite their colorful name, these birds are not actually purple. Their plumage is a dark blue-black with an iridescent sheen. Depending on the light and angle, their color may appear bright blue, navy blue, rich deep purple or even green.
- The male purple martin is the only North American swallow with a dark belly. This makes in-flight identification easier than with many other swallow species. Birders still need to take care not to confuse purple martins with swifts, which may also have dark underparts but have a very different flight style.
- Different ages and genders of purple martins migrate at different times. While there is some variation, older males typically migrate first, followed by older females and then younger birds. Because of this, older birds typically choose the better nesting sites because they arrive on the breeding grounds first.
- Purple martins are social, colonial birds, especially in eastern populations. Nesting colonies may include hundreds of pairs of birds, and roosting colonies later in the season may have tens of thousands of birds. The largest roosting colony was estimated to have 700,000 birds at one time.
- Purple martins follow an insectivorous diet, eating primarily flying insects such as moths, gnats, flies and mosquitoes. They catch the majority of their prey in midair, acrobatically twisting and turning to follow agile insects. They even drink in midair, flying over a pond, lake or stream and scooping water into their bills while on the move.
- Purple martins do most of their feeding between 160-500 feet high (50-150 meters). Because of this height, mosquitoes make up only a small portion of their diet, despite rumors that the birds can eat up to 2,000 mosquitoes per day. They could consume that many, but mosquitoes are not generally found at those heights in such large numbers.
- Purple martin parents may feed their nestlings up to 60 times per day, bringing them various insects that are high in protein and other nutrition the young birds require. Both males and females help feed the young chicks.
- Purple martins are highly susceptible to bad weather. During long periods of cold or rain there will be no insects available to feed on, and entire bird colonies can die off if the weather does not improve in 2-3 days.
- The association between purple martins and humans began centuries ago. Native Americans hung gourds for the birds to nest in, hoping to attract them to help keep insects away from crops. Today, eastern purple martin colonies are almost 100 percent dependent on human-supplied housing, though western populations still nest in natural cavities such as tree snags.
- These birds are geographically loyal and purple martins will return to the same nesting site year after year if it is still suitable. Adding new houses to colony sites can help birders accommodate growing purple martin families and increase their local bird population.
- The longest recorded lifespan of a purple martin is over 13 years for a banded bird.
- The top flight speed of purple martins is greater than 40 miles per hour. These birds are agile in flight hunters and can engage in complex aerial acrobatics, which they often do while chasing prey.
- Purple martins are complete neotropical migrants and travel from North America in the summer to South America as far as Brazil and Argentina in the winter. The full migration can take 2-3 months to complete as birds rest and feed along the way.
- The purple martin’s worst enemies are the European starling and the house sparrow. Both of these species are aggressive toward purple martins and may attack or kill birds in competition for nesting sites. Other enemies of purple martins include snakes, raccoons, hawks, owls, squirrels and feral cats. Some predators will hunt active purple martins, while others will invade nests to kill young birds or may even destroy eggs.