Purple Martin (Progne subis)


The Purple Martin (Progne subis) is generally recognised as being the largest North American swallow. Its body measures about 20 cm in length and it has a wingspan of 39-41 cm. The Purple Martin is an incredibly acrobatic flyer. Today they are commonly found nesting in backyard birdhouses. The Purple Martin has been making use of nesting boxes in eastern North America for well over a century. This is the case because Native Americans once hung up empty gourds for these birds to use as homes, starting a tradition that European settlers continued on their arrival. While those birds found in the eastern part of the country use birdhouses almost exclusively, those in the west tend to prefer natural cavities.

Purple Martins are not as easily identified as other bird species due to the fact that they display a lot of variance until about two years of age. The adult bird is a large swallow with a large head, thick chest and broad, pointed wings with a slightly forked tail. The male’s entire body is a bluish black while the underparts of the female are light in colour. Males approaching adulthood look similar to females but with solid black feathers randomly erupting on their chest. Females approaching adulthood do not yet have a steel blue sheen on their backs. While most of these birds are found in eastern North America, some can also be found between British Columbia and Mexico on the west coast. Those living on the west coast generally make use of woodpecker holes and cactus cavities as nesting sites. They are also somewhat paler than their eastern relatives.

Unfortunately Purple Martins are often targeted by House Sparrows and Common Starlings – two invasive species which kill Martins in order to make use of their nest cavities. In order to have these beautiful little birds breed successfully, these invader species must be actively controlled and removed from their nesting site. Purple Martins are migratory and they generally fly to the Amazon basin in the winter months. They feed mainly on insects which they usually catch in mid flight. They also drink their water by scooping it up whilst flying.