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In North America, west of the Rocky Mountains, Purple Martins nest in natural cavities, such as empty woodpecker holes. East of the Rocky Mountains, Purple Martins depend entirely on humans for their nesting sites. They shifted from their ancestral habit of nesting in woodpecker cavities thousands of years ago when, for a variety of reasons, Indians enjoyed attracting them to hollowed-out gourds. Indians may have begun making housing for the birds because they liked how they added protection to their gardens, or for insect control, or just because they come back to the same nest site every year and are a wonderful sign that spring is here.
John James Audubon in 1831 wrote, “Almost every country 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.”
Also in the 1800s, two bird species that are not native to North America were introduced here from Europe: the European Starling and the common House Sparrow. These invaders began competing with martins for housing, and in fact would take over a martin nest all together and kill chicks in there. This invasion accelerated human interest in providing and protecting martin housing. The competition between martins and the starlings and sparrows continues today. For the record: the European Starling and the House Sparrow are not protected species in the U.S.
The North American Breeding Bird Survey recently reported that Purple Martins declined in number by more than 1% per year between 1966 and 2014. However, they are not on the State of the Birds watch list compiled by the U.S. Committee of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative.
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