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Purple martins are friendly, talkative around people

By Staff | May 18, 2018

People like purple martins, and purple martins like people. It’s pretty much a hands-off relationship, but both sides gain from being around one another.

In the eastern United States, the acrobatic little flyers have a need for people’s help. Hollowed or artificial gourds made of plastic serve as nest sites for the diminishing population of the talkative neighbors-to-people.

“Apartment” houses constructed of wood, aluminum or fake plastic, sitting atop long, slender poles in the middle of backyards, also serve as group nesting sites.

Few natural sites can be found. Sparrows, starlings and other birds fight over the scarce hollow spots in dead trees, leaving humans as providers of ample shelter for purple martin nest-building. Colonies of the birds nesting in groups of gourds and fanciful apartment houses can number 30 or more, because the insect-eaters like one another’s company.

The almost-black airborne acrobats are members of the swallow family, and their aerial tricks are often jaw-dropping to watch.

Humans enjoy the company of the always-on-the-move martins, because the winged aerialists eat a variety of pesky insects that buzz around people or have a taste for their garden vegetables. It may be mostly unproven folklore that purple martins voraciously eat mosquitoes, but they do crave stinkbugs, mayflies, moths, dragonflies, flies, Japanese beetles, grasshoppers, midges and cicadas-problem actors in people’s lives.

The birds are wholesome chatterers, making various chirping and croaking sounds that echo off bushes, shrubs, trees, out-buildings and hen houses all the day long.

The insect-catching is done in the air; martins are seldom seen on the ground. A stable supply of water will attract them, so small ponds or ambling streams can help bring them closer to those wanting them around for the summer. They’ve even been seen bathing on the fly.

Many times, other small birds such as other sparrows and starlings can’t find proper nest sites either, and those species bicker with the martins over the apartments and man-placed gourds.

When foraging for insects, the martins display such rapid and direction-changing patterns that they can be difficult to follow. With a mixture of flapping and periods of gliding, martins can clear an area of insects in a half-hour.

Their long, tapered wings and short, forked tails have them buzzing through the dusk, just in time to rid a yard of insects for humans wanting to plant a yard chair to take in the last delicate breezes and fading light of a June evening.

Purple martins are friendly, useful and just plain fun to be around. And they can be persuaded to come to your yard, provided you have some hollow gourds or “apartment” buildings for them.