Welcome! If you found yourself here, it is extremely likely that you are new to purple martin landlording. If you hear nothing else, I just want to say thank you for caring for this bird. The population will not grow without new landlords and the fact that you’re doing a bit of research shows that you truly care about them. I hope that what you read below will help you attract more purple martins and help you keep your newly started colony safe for years to come.
Early on in my time working with purple martins I found it to be a bit worrisome. I wanted to attract them to my newly put up purple martin house, but it took a bit of time before my colony began. Honestly, I write this to address some of the early concerns that I had and hopefully help you feel reassured that you are doing the right thing.
Types of Housing for Purple Martins
If you look around for purple martin houses, you may find that there are quite a few options to choose from. My recommendation is to start rather small. You will see some photos of some massive colonies. These are often referred to as super colonies. That being said, you won’t be having one your first year. For this reason I would recommend either getting a basic purple martin house with a pole that you can raise and lower the house, or a purple martin rack with a handful of gourds.
If you aren’t sure about whether to go with a house or gourds, I wrote an article about the pros and cons list for each.
You will notice that the purple martin houses are typically white in color. This isn’t just the preference of purple martin landlords, but it is the preference of the purple martin itself. If you build your own purple martin house, I highly suggest painting the majority straight white and then you can paint the roof or trim any color you wish, including darker colors.
The reason people do this is that the purple martins have simply grown used to it. It is believed that purple martins are aware that a white birdhouse may indicate housing for them and help attract them. Darker purple martin houses are notorious for sitting for years dormant or populated by other birds you wouldn’t want to provide housing for.
In addition to the color, it is worth looking for a more modern purple martin house with appropriate door sizes. There are doors known as “SREH doors”. These doors are unique to purple martin houses and assist with keeping predators as well as other types of birds out of the house. Starlings, as an example, are larger than the purple martin so they struggle to fit through the doors. They are not starling proof, but they are starling resistant and it is worth your time finding a house with modern protection for your colony.
Lastly, I would highly recommend looking for a purple martin house that has some access to the units. Since nest checks are imperative to your colonies survival, you don’t want it to be too much of a chore reaching in and cleaning it out as needed from time to time.
The Best Time to Put out a Purple Martin House
If you are concerned when to put your purple martin house out, the ideal time is likely in the fall before the birds are migrating back to South America. It is believed that some of the young martins may be seeking for nesting sites when they return in the Spring. However, I would not hesitate to put out a purple martin house anytime of the year so long as you intend on checking on it regularly.
The problem with purple martin houses that are not monitored is that some of the non-native bird species, such as European Starlings and House Sparrows, are likely to attempt to nest in your purple martin houses. You want to make sure you keep them out of your purple martin house to avoid them from continuing to populate. They can be detrimental to your colony.
If you do intend on putting up a purple martin house or gourds during the off-season, consider putting up door plugs. There are many people who will put up a purple martin house and only leave a few of the units open at a time to help with some of these problems.
If it’s winter, I generally place door plugs through the entire house, and then may consider removing a few early in the season. The moment I see a purple martin in the area, I will remove all of the door plugs to hopefully encourage as many to nest there as possible.
Picking the Right Location for a Purple Martin Colony
40 Feet From Trees
Any trees that are higher than the purple martin house or gourds should be at least 40 feet away from the units. Since purple martin are highly vulnerable to predators such as owls, raccoons, or squirrels, it is very important to keep trees a good distance away. Trees close means that the predators may be within quick striking distance from killing your entire colony.
In addition, purple martins are quite smart. They know when the area isn’t safe. Close trees will deter a purple martin from nesting. If you are trying to build a colony for the first time, you want to make sure that you give plenty of distance between the house and any trees that may hang over towards the purple martin house.
30 ft – 120 ft From Human Dwellings
Purple martins are notorious for loving being around people. The purple martin house should be at least 30 ft from a house or shop building. However, you do not want to put a purple martin house a long ways from the house either.
The reason for this is two fold. If you are within sight of your purple martin house, you are more likely to monitor it effectively. You may see animals lurking around it or you may at some point catch a snake trying to climb it.
In addition, you should know that purple martins love people. They find security in them and for centuries have relied on humans for their survival. This means that living relatively closely, no more than 120 ft away, is a good distance for purple martins to feel secure.
10 ft High Structure
Purple martins prefer to be high in the air. I have seen some purple martin houses on small, short poles. The issue with this is two fold. One, you are asking for trouble from land predators. A 3ft pole is far easier for an animal to reach than one that is 10ft in the air.
In addition, the purple martin prefers to nest quite high. They likely will not nest in a purple martin house or gourd that is lower than this height. Try to make sure that when purchasing a purple martin house pole you get one that can be raised and lowered and may reach the height of 10ft. I wouldn’t get a pole any shorter than 9ft, for sure.
Multi-Unit Housing Structure
Note above that I recommend leaving at least a few housing units open early in the purple martin season. The reason I don’t open just one is because I know purple martins prefer to nest in colonies. They will nest in at least two pairs, but may nest in as many as 200 pairs. They have a sense of security in being around one another.
As a purple martin landlord, this means that I strongly suggest you avoid building a small purple martin house with only one unit. You likely will receive no visitors. In contrast, the western purple martins that use natural habitat for nesting will frequently nest in a single pair. However, this is widely considered impossible in the Eastern part of the United States where purple martins will utilize man-made structures for nesting.
Good Feeding Area
This is part you likely can’t fix, but it is worth noting the ideal conditions for the purple martin if you are hoping to bring them to your backyard. The martins eat flying insects. If you think of an area that is full of insects, what do you most likely think of? Probably a lake or pond area. Not so ironically, the purple martin prefers this area.
If you live near a pond or a lake, you have a better chance of getting purple martin areas to your structure.
Near Other Established Colonies
If you live near an existing decent-sized colony, there is a decent chance that you will have purple martins visit at the least. Again, this is likely something you can’t help with, but it is worth noting as well. If you know that there are some colonies nearby, I think it is very likely you will see some.
If you do not have any nearby, then it may take a while before you see any arrive. In some cases, people have had to wait a couple of years before singing a single nest arrive. Please don’t get discouraged if this is you! You may be doing everything right, but it is just taking a bit of time to get noticed.
What to Look For Before Purple Martins Arrive
In my area, purple martins may start arriving as early as mid-march. What I try to do is watch the weather. In Oklahoma weather can be quite inconsistent. That being said, the first or second day of relatively warm weather I try to make a point to go outside and check my purple martin house. I know that once we hit that 50’s mark during the day, it isn’t going to be too long before martins begin arriving. Here are a couple of things I am looking for:
Remove Other Nesters
If there are any other types of nesters in my purple martin house, I go ahead and remove them. There may be some types of birds I wouldn’t mind having around, but I want my structure to be reserved specifically for the martins. Those birds can find other nesting areas, unlike the martin.
If I find any other types of nesters in the house, I will generally try to rinse the unit out with water. I use no harsh chemicals, I just use a bowl of water and a few paper towels to get rid of anything left over.
For many purple martin landlords, they may consider putting a few pine needles or a bit of hay in the unit. Since you know purple martins are arriving soon, I wouldn’t hesitate to do this at this time.
Get Rid of Non-Native Species
I add this because while I don’t have to be as aggressive to some, I am quite aggressive towards the non-native species as they are very damaging to the purple martins survival.
If you find any European Starlings or House Sparrows, consider breaking any eggs you find, remove them entirely, and if you have a pellet gun then it may be a good chance to get some target practice in. These birds are extremely harmful and not beneficial to our environment in any way.
How to Attract Purple Martins
Patience is Key
For most first time purple martin landlords, your best quality is going to be patience. There are plenty of landlords that never had any purple martins arrive their first year. With a little bit of determination and keeping watch on your purple martin house or gourds regularly, it is likely you will have some visitors eventually. As noted, purple martin housing is in demand for the species, so if you’re providing a good area based on the tips above, it won’t be too long before you have a few arriving.
In addition, most purple martin lanlords I have spoken to early on only have a few families. Expect your colony to grow over time. It will start small. That is okay! As long as you provide a good house and work to keep predators away, you should expect it to regularly grow.
Check Your Purple Martin House Regularly
The biggest mistake a purple martin landlord can make is not checking on their purple martin house regularly. This is particularly the case early in the season. Remember, we have other birds looking for great nesting sites early in the Spring.
Don’t be surprised if you have no purple martins if you leave your nest unattended for weeks at a time. It is very likely that some of the other types of birds will attempt to nest in it and you may find purple martins going elsewhere for a more secure area. This means they are passing over your purple martin house when otherwise they might be interested!
Play the Dawnsong
Purple martins love other purple martins! A common approach to attracting purple martins is to play the dawnsong. The most common approach is to setup a speaker outside near your purple martin house and keep this youtube video going on repeat.
The easiest way I have found to do this is to get an inexpensive bluetooth speaker and an old iPod. Place the dawnsong on the iPod, set it to repeat, and let it run all the time. Keep in mind that it probably needs to be under an overhang near the house so you can keep the iPod charged, and the speaker doesn’t get wet from rain. It doesn’t have to be super loud, a medium volume is sufficient. It hopefully won’t be too long before you see a few purple martins lurking around to see what all of the singing is about!
Place a Decoy or Two
Since, as we’ve already learned, purple martins love other purple martins, decoys may be a good option for you. A purple martin decoy is relatively inexpensive and a great way to indicate that there is purple martin housing available to other purple martins.
The decoys are generally made to sit on top of your purple martin house or attached to a small rack that is attached to your pole. They are fast to setup, and maybe a bit of an easier path than playing the Dawnsong. They can remain up all year.
How to Care for Your Purple Martins
Caring for your purple martins is extremely important for their survival. For most purple martin enthusiasts, they would rather you remove the purple martin housing than place one up and then never tend to it as generally they turn into nesting for other harmful species.
Do Regular Nest Checks
I recommend that any purple martin landlord should check on their martins daily. However, for many this isn’t feasible and that’s okay! Realistically, I attempt to check on mine 3-4 times per week.
I use Google Sheets to create a spreadsheet and then I created a log sheet that I use to track what I witness. This helps me indicate whether there may be a problem or not. It has a few columns on it, such as what Unit I am looking at, if it has any indication of occupancy, the number of eggs if there are eggs, etc.
This has helped me a couple of times when I say, “I am sure there were five eggs in here yesterday, why is there only four now? Whoops! There were only four yesterday!” It keeps me from panicking.
Add Protection from Predators
If you have some extra time or want to put a bit more of an investment in your purple martin setup, a predator guard has to be near the top of the list. I have said it before, I’ll say it again: it’s not a matter of if you have predators nearby, but a matter of when they will be coming to attack. You have raccoons, squirrels, owls, and snakes nearby. When they discover your purple martin setup, they will likely be a disruption to your colonies growth if they don’t wipe it out all together.
I’ve written an article on protecting purple martins and the primary focus is getting a predator guard. There are quite a few approaches, some better than others. I will say that something is better than nothing. You don’t have to have a fancy setup, but a deterrent of some kind is absolutely necessary.
Also, below is a video from the Purple Martin Fanatics Facebook Group. They spend some time talking about their approaches to predator guards and their experiences with several of the commercial options available.
What to Do During the Off-Season
Even though purple martins spend only a few months out of the year with us, there is still plenty of things you can do throughout the offseason to better your chances of a successful purple martin season.
Most commonly you will find experienced purple martin landlords making some types of improvements. This may include things like building a homemade setup for protection against predators or repainting their purple martin house.
One thing I like to do is give the purple martin house a good cleaning. There are plenty of landlords that believe old nests should be left alone. This may be the case for those nests that are well put together and appear to have nothing that is going to rot in them. I personally have found that removing the old materials is my preference and using a very light bleach water combination to wipe them down. I have found that this prevents anything strange from growing in it.
At the beginning of the season, I may place hay or pine needles into the units before the purple martins arrive, but I don’t generally like for this material to sit in the units all winter long.
If you have anything broken on your setup, this is also a great time to make some of those repairs. As a new purple martin landlord, you likely have a fresh rope, wench, and other materials. If you don’t though, consider replacing old items that may stop operation mid-season. It’s a good time to make those changes when you aren’t depending on them for nest checks.
Congratulations on setting up a purple martin site. We need more of you. The purple martin depends on you for its survival. Thank you for being a part of this awesome activity. While most of us got into this as a hobby, I think you’ll also quickly grow an appreciation for the relationship between purple martins and people. I wish you the best of luck this season on your purple martin journey!