Purple Martin Mania
roads and in small communities.
Camden County is home to what may be Missouri’s largest colony—131 active pairs last season. The birds nest in a combination of aluminum houses, manufactured PVC gourds and an elevated rack of nest compartments made from reconditioned mailboxes.
This “super colony,” maintained by Cheri Warner, is about 12 miles north of Richland. Students from nearby Crocker Elementary School visit the site often on summer field trips.
Standing in front of a noisy colony, you might conclude that there are a lot of purple martins. But, you may be looking at the only colony of birds for miles.
That’s the case in St. Louis City, where the population is primarily limited to a small colony at the Missouri Botanical Garden, a second one at a nearby restaurant parking lot, and to seven to eight pairs recently attracted to new housing in Forest Park. Together, all of those colonies probably contain fewer than 30 pairs of martins.
In the northern half of their range—generally the states north of Missouri—and in pockets of the southeast United States, purple martin numbers have been declining since about 1960. Pressure from European starlings and English house sparrows likely is contributing to the decline. Both species successfully compete with purple martins for nesting sites.
Many experts believe we have only about 10 percent of the number of purple martins that was present in the 1800s. There’s little old survey data to compare, but in notes dated February 1821, John James Audubon wrote in New Orleans of “prodigious flocks moving over the city...I walked under one of them with ease for upwards of two miles.”
Why do so many people love purple martins? Even passionate landlords have a hard time answering.
Purple martins are enchanting. Watching these birds soar, bank and dive is mesmerizing. They chirp loudly and seem to delight in one another’s company.
Migration for purple martins is a drawn-out affair. Last season, one experienced landlord in Webb City reported that a male martin arrived on Feb. 24, well ahead of my grandfather’s schedule. The bird was likely a senior traveler; older birds tend to arrive earlier.
Although many martins arrive in Missouri in March, the bulk of many colonies—mostly 2-year-old birds—lag behind until early April.
One-year-old birds, called sub adults, arrive in late April and well into May. “Subbie” males lack the steel-blue to purple color of 2-year-old males. They resemble females but have patches of dark about the