Biology and Behavior

  • Purple Martins are North America’s largest swallow. They are larger than a Barn Swallow or Tree Swallow, and smaller than a robin. Their wing span is 15 to 16 inches.

  • Martins arrive to this region in late winter and early spring to return to nest boxes and gourds. It’s a time for rejoicing to anyone who tends a colony of martins. Their cheerful chatter can lighten up anyone who has the winter blues.

  • Returning martins typically occupy the same nesting space as they had the year before, unless it is no longer there or is blocked from entry. Older martins generally return to their nest sites earlier than first-year birds. First-year birds seek a new nesting compartment, which is why it is important for people to continue maintaining nest boxes and gourds. Keep in mind that without human help, these birds probably would be extinct.

  • Males usually get to the nest site first and begin building it from pine straw, grass, mud, whatever is nearby. They want a great-looking nest that will attract a female. Once they pair up, they share in nest-building and feeding duties.

  • The female lays 2 to 7 white eggs at a rate of one egg per day. They incubate the clutch for approximately 15 days until the young hatch. Nestlings depend on their parents for 26 to 32 days until ready to fly.

  • While raising their young, adults soar through surrounding fields, meadows and wetlands for any flying insects –not only mosquitoes-- to feed upon and bring to their young. Purple Martins feed on the fly (except the nestlings) and will catch dragonflies, grasshoppers, crickets, butterflies, wasps and bees, spiders and mayflies. They get water while flying, too, by using their lower bill to skim surface water.