How to Attract Purple Martins

Bring These Beautiful Birds to Your Backyard

Purple Martin and Decoy
Photo © Rick Kimpel/Flickr/CC by-SA 2.0

Purple martins are large, iridescent swallows and highly desirable backyard birds, and attracting purple martins can be easy. Because they eat thousands of insects each day, do not require bird feeders and can nest in compact colonies, birders only have to take a few steps to make their yard suitable as purple martin habitat.

What Purple Martins Need

Like all birds, purple martins require four things for a suitable habitat: food, water, shelter and nesting sites.

By creating a bird-friendly habitat with these swallows in mind, attracting purple martins can be simple.

  • Food
    Purple martins eat flying insects, so no number of bird feeders or type of birdseed will attract them. Instead, backyard birders should avoid spraying insecticides or pesticides on lawns, trees or shrubs, since doing so will eliminate the most important food source these birds require. Instead, by attracting purple martins you can take advantage of their natural insect control and voracious appetites and you won't need chemical controls.

    On rare occasions, purple martins will eat fine gravel to use as grit to aid their digestion. Having a secluded source of this gravel nearby can help attract the birds. They will also eat finely crushed eggshells as a calcium supplement during the nesting season. Providing eggshells (dried and briefly toasted to be sterile and brittle) can encourage nesting purple martins to linger nearby.

  • Water
    All birds require some source of water, and purple martins prefer large, natural water sources instead of bird baths. A large, long pond, lake or stream is the best source, since these birds drink in flight by scooping their bills into the water as they pass by. If a backyard birder has the room to put in a large water feature, choose an elongated design that gives purple martins adequate room for this fly-by drinking. Otherwise, it is easiest to attract purple martins if there are nearby natural water sources such as a retention pond, drainage ditch, golf course water feature or similar water source. Fortunately, these water sources can be several hundred yards away for purple martins to still use easily.

  • Shelter
    Purple martins take shelter almost exclusively in artificial houses, and they will avoid brush piles and dense plantings for fear of lurking predators. Unlike many other birds, it is best to attract purple martins to open areas with little excessive shelter, as the birds will be more secure when they have a good visual range to survey. A few scattered, open perches will be welcome, however, as the birds will use those vantage points to watch for threats, scan for food or roost between feedings.

  • Nesting Sites
    Putting up appropriate purple martin houses is the best way to attract these birds. They are colonial nesters and large bird houses with multiple compartments are best to meet their needs. The birds will be naturally attracted to homes painted white, which also reflect heat better and keep nestlings in each house cooler. Both apartment-style houses and gourd houses are available, and creating clusters of houses will encourage large colonies of the birds to nest. Bird houses for purple martins must be placed 30-120 feet away from large trees and other structures to give them plenty of space for feeding.

    In addition to providing appropriate houses for purple martins, supplying proper nesting materials can help encourage them to take up residence. A nearby pile of small twigs, grass clippings and leaves is perfect, and a muddy area is also useful as these birds use mud as a binder to hold their nests together.

    More Tips for Attracting Purple Martins

    To make your backyard even more attractive to purple martins…

    • Take steps to deter predators, such as using baffles on bird house poles and managing house sparrow populations so they do not take over martin houses. European starlings can also take over purple martin houses and should be kept away from these nesting areas.
       
    • Add supplemental perches above and below purple martin houses to give birds a safe spot to roost and preen. These perches should be thin and narrow enough that they cannot be used by larger predators.
       
    • Add decoy birds to purple martin houses to encourage these social swallows to check out the structures.
       
    • Play recordings of purple martin songs at dawn to attract passing birds, especially if you have not had purple martins in your yard previously.

      As with attracting any backyard birds, it is necessary to meet purple martins’ needs for food, water, shelter and nesting sites to encourage them to visit. Patience is essential, but with the right habitat and proper housing, attracting purple martins can be very rewarding.