Purple Martin

Progne subis

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Photo of a male purple martin perched on martin box
Adult male purple martins are glossy, purplish blue overall and may appear black in low light.
Noppadol Paothong
Family

Hirundinidae (swallows) in the order Passeriformes

Description

The largest member of the swallow family in North America. Adult males are glossy, purplish blue overall, and may appear black in low light. Females and young males are light gray below. Purple martins sing and are often on the wing a few hours before dawn. Song is a gurgling guttural warble. The call is a two-note “tchew-tchew” or “chur-chur.”

Size

Length: 8 inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).

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Photo of a female purple martin carrying stick at entrance to martin box
Purple Martin Female
Although originally cavity-nesters, martins now rely almost entirely on nest boxes provided by humans.

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Photo of two male purple martins on a perch
Purple Martins
Generations of Americans have greeted the annual return of purple martins.

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Photo of purple martin nest with eggs
Purple Martin Nest With Eggs
Competition with introduced European starlings and house sparrows contributes to an overall long-term decline in martin populations.

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Photo of a purple martin in flight
Purple Martin In Flight
This photo is blurry because purple martins are fast, agile fliers. In fall, they fly clear to southern Brazil to escape freezing weather.

FG-0041_Purple_Martin.mp4

Video of purple martins.
Habitat and conservation

Purple martins are not well adapted to cold, rainy weather, and regional dieoffs may happen if these conditions persist for an extended time. Competition with introduced European starlings and house sparrows, which aggressively evict and sometimes kill young and adult martins, may also contribute to their population declines in some areas. Though originally cavity-nesters, martins now rely almost entirely on nest boxes humans provide for them.

Foods

These aerial acrobats catch flying insects on the wing. They are not major predators of mosquitoes, which fly much lower than martins do. A martin colony, however, may catch and eat several hundred beetles, horseflies, grasshoppers, dragonflies, and wasps each day.

image of Purple Martin distribution map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

Common summer resident in appropriate habitat, where nesting sites are available. Populations are declining over much of North America.

Life cycle

Martins begin arriving in Missouri in early March. There is usually only one brood a year. This gregarious species forms large flocks beginning in July. In August, martins gather in large flocks prior to fall migration. A nighttime roost in Springfield once contained over 30,000 birds. Such flocks join together as they migrate southward. In a few weeks they are on their winter range in southern Brazil. Millions of them roost in city parks in the state of Sao Paulo from November through January.

Human connections

These endearing birds have a long history with humans on our continent. Native Americans provided gourd nests for them. You can help them survive by erecting and maintaining next boxes or gourds on your property. Plans and instructions are available from the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Ecosystem connections

These acrobatic swallows hunt winged insects, helping to check the populations of those insects.