Purple Martins: a Sign of Spring

After a long winter’s nap, the days get longer, the sun shines a bit warmer and the earth begins to awaken. Along with the tulips and crocuses, another sign of spring are the birds returning from their winter feeding grounds. Robins, red-winged blackbirds and buzzards are among the early arrivals, but April 1 marks the expected arrival of the farmer’s friend, the purple martin.

Purple Martin

Purple Martin

In their purplish-black plumage, martins are among the most desired birds in Amish country. Have you ever wondered about those huge white “bird condos” often seen near a barn or pond? While they are charming and scenic, they aren’t just for looks. They are specially designed to attract the notoriously picky purple martins

Martins are known as the tamest of wild birds and have adapted to make their homes among humans. They are the only bird to completely depend on humans for housing.

Purple Martins are the largest species of swallow in North America. They spend their winters in Brazil then migrate to their summer grounds in spring. The time of arrival depends on weather – they can starve if the temperatures are too cool. Beginning in January, martins return to Florida and the Gulf Coast and they move northward as the temperatures warm.

Because they feed only on flying insects, martins are a valuable friend to the farmer or any resident of the country. Entertaining to watch, they dive and catch food in mid-air, including flies, midges, Japanese beetles, mayflies, moths and other bothersome insects. They feed mainly during daylight hours, and so are not predators of mosquitoes, which come out mainly at night.

Attracting a colony of martins is a difficult task. It’s all about location, location, location! According to the Purple Martin Conservation Association, their houses must be placed in an open locations between 30 and 120 feet from human housing or farm buildings. Trees taller than their housing should be far away – between 40 and 60 feet from the birdhouse. Housing must be 10 to 20 feet high with no wires attached or other vegetation in the vicinity. And, they are attracted to white or light colored houses.

Purple Martin houses on an Amish Farm

Purple Martin houses on an Amish Farm

Once a colony of martins has been established, they will return to the same houses year after year as long as predators and competing birds are controlled. Most houses are built on a telescoping post, so  the nests of more aggressive competitors, such as English sparrows and starlings, can be removed.

And while all this takes work and maintenance, there is no more “green”  or natural way of insect control than with birds such as martins or barn swallows.

The next time you are visiting Ohio’s Amish country, be on the lookout for the big white birdhouses, home to the purple martin!

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