Purple Martin Mania

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Published on: Mar. 2, 2006

Last revision: Nov. 23, 2010

Purple Martin

Like many purple martin enthusiasts, I was introduced to these beautiful swallows by my grandfather, who anxiously watched in spring for the return of “his” birds.

As some grandfathers do, mine harbored a few myths about purple martins. One that he kept repeating was that martins always return on Good Friday, give or take a few days.

The arrival of purple martins (Progne subis) from wintering grounds in South America is fairly consistent throughout their range. Scouts usually show up in southern Missouri in early March. When they arrive, however, also depends on the weather. Favorable conditions for the return of the martins and the variable date for Good Friday may simply have coincided enough times to convince Grandpa. That’s usually how myths are born.

I’ve heard many myths about purple martins. Probably the most widely believed myth is that purple martins are voracious consumers of mosquitoes. Scientific studies don’t support this belief. No ornithological research has ever found that mosquitoes comprise more than 3 percent of a martin’s diet.

That makes sense. Like all swallows, purple martins eat airborne insects entirely on the wing, but martins tend to feed high in the sky while mosquitoes remain close to the ground. Martins also feed during daylight, while mosquitoes are most active at night.

Purple martins, which are the largest of our swallows, measuring 7 1/2 inches with a wingspan of 13 inches, do eat a variety of other flying pests such as Japanese beetles and spotted cucumber beetles. They also consume several water-borne insect species, including mayflies, damselflies and large dragonflies. This may explain why martins are less numerous in forested mountain regions, including parts of the Ozarks.

Apartment Dwellers

Purple martins are the only wild bird species largely dependent on human-provided housing. It’s safe to say that if “landlords” took down all martin the houses and gourd racks, the species would suffer.

American Indians manipulated purple martins in the East to abandon tree holes for hollowed-out gourds. Early colonists adopted the custom and added houses to the mix.

Colonies of purple martins exist in most communities and rural yards in Missouri, but they tend to be more numerous in the southern half of the state.

The greater population in southern Missouri is probably due to more martin housing on boat docks and marinas around Missouri’s reservoirs. Martins love a house near water, although they will readily colonize open sites in yards. Southern Missouri also offers many hospitable landlords along rural

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