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High flying neighbors: Purple martins are excellent insect control

By Staff | Jun 9, 2014

Some of the best neighbors families can have are birds.

And some of the most neighborly birds are purple martins.

Martins are a member of the swallow family and their aerial acrobatics aren’t the only way they can be neighborly and a benefit to folks in small towns or the adjacent countryside.

Purple martins are gregarious and nest in colonies. In modern times, their summer nesting apartments or hollow gourds are almost always provided to them by human benefactors.

How do the purple martins repay their two-legged helpers for the dwellings they have provided?

They are strictly insect eaters. A diet of high-flying dragonflies, moths and even a few mosquitoes help the purple martins receive a welcoming committee wherever they have been before.

No bird feeders are needed. No bird baths are necessary. Even the usual sanctuary of shrubs, thick-leafed trees or thickets aren’t required by the chirping martins. Piles of brush and dense places filled with weeds and tangled trees are mostly avoided by martins.

The iridescent dark blue-purple martins want an area clear of decades-old trees and foliage that might encumber their flight paths to the nests they have in “apartments” placed on the top of poles or gourds strung along wires high above the ground. When they land at their apartment or gourd, they seem to like to scan the whole area for either potential trouble or another unsuspecting meal moving above them.

Insects are on the one-food menu. If humans want to provide crushed eggshells as a grit, so much the better. Experienced purple martin watchers also know they can attract the winged Orkin men with easily-found piles of twigs for nesting material and a source of fresh water that can be accessed on the fly.

Purple Martins only rarely come to the ground. A keen awareness of possible predators keeps them airbourne, even while drinking water.

Problems with starlings and sparrows for nesting space can give martins reason enough to look elsewhere for a summer’s months of raising their young. The larger starlings usually prevail in any space bickerings with the smaller purple martins.

Martins appreciate an area that is pesticide-free. No insecticides on greenspace, trees or shrubs gives the voracious eaters a chance to be a colony of insect-control specialists themselves.

Multi-tiered nesting houses are the norm for the females, a different color than the violet and glossy blue of the males. The females have wings of a brown-black color and don’t draw the same admiration or attention as their mates because of more muted areas of gray on their chest and head.

Except in the far west where abandoned woodpecker holes or cavities in large cacti are used for nest sites, these birds in the mid-Atlantic region of West Virginia, Maryland, southern Pennsylvania and northern Virginia don’t build in trees or shrubs or under the eaves of buildings like some other swallows do.

They gather at the multi-level wooden apartments painted white to reflect some of the July heat and at the human-provided plastic gourds or real gourds, also white in color.

For the summer months they will flit about and clear an area of pesky insects. Their chirping almost never stops during the daylight hours.

By the middle of September, the season’s young have been raised to adulthood and the group of affiable neighbors is ready to head to South America for the winter.

Like Carolina wrens, robins and catbirds the purple martins are a friendly group of neighbors, providing a service with their bug zapping and giving us a feel-good treat with their pest-control and singing presence.