Pretty purple martins grace a tower of gourds at the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey. These insectivores are naturally secondary cavity nesters (i.e., tree holes, woodpecker holes) but have co-evolved (almost entirely in the eastern part of the U.S.) to inhabit residences — gourds and purple martin houses — provided by humans.
Native Americans reportedly began the tradition of providing gourd “houses” for these gorgeous glossy birds that feed upon insects as they fly. Noted ornithologist Alexander Sprunt remarked: “This is the largest of the swallows, in its handsomely glossy grey livery, whether slurred by literature or not, … has been a favorite with humanity for generations”.
John James Audubon, in 1831, confessed that he selected his lodging based on the beauty of the associated purple martin houses: “Almost every county tavern has a martin box on the upper part of its sign-board, and I have observed that the handsomer the box, the better does the inn generally prove to be”.
Purple martins (Progne subis) are found only in north and south America. They breed in north America and over-winter in south American. Elder “scout” birds return to their nesting “homes” in Florida as early as January.
Their aerial antics are delightful. They even drink “on the wing” as they skim the surface of water bodies. Moths, dragonflies, butterflies, beetles, wasps, and other insects are among their favored foods. Unfortunately, they do not consume large numbers of mosquitoes, though they often — mistakenly — are touted as a mosquito control measure.
Purple martin habitations should be placed in open areas with a clear fly-way for success, as shown below at the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge …
Click here to visit the Purple Martin Conservation Association: Lots of information about how to attract these beautiful birds, as well as a store from which to purchase gourds (real & plastic), poles, purple martin houses, and all sorts of paraphernalia.