My father taught me about purple martins back in Indiana over 50 years ago. They migrate back from South America every spring to mate, lay eggs and raise their young. 80% nest in manmade boxes, put up by people that know the wonderful benefits of purple martins. First of all they eat insects. The number one insect is mosquitoes, eating hundreds daily. For 16 years I have sat on the front porch at sun down and never once have I been bitten by a mosquito.
I’ve always heard the story that a purple martin eats a thousand mosquitoes per day. A blond friend of mine said “Where do you buy 1000 mosquitoes? “ She’s a city girl. I have two 12 compartment boxes set up on the dam of the lake in front of my house. I have another box at the barn by the cattle pens about 300 yards from the house. The horses stand under this house in the warm afternoons because the martins catch all the flies. When a horse’s tail hangs straight down, without swishing back and forth, you know the martins are doing their job.
Here in central Texas the martins return in mid February. One or two male scouts will come in first. Male martins are entirely dark glossy blue-black, while females and juveniles are gray beneath with paler bellies. This year they arrived Feb. 13, last year was February 28. More birds will show up over the next few weeks and last year’s young will be the latest to join the colony.
Martins are a joy to watch and listen to; they love people and will chirp and sing when you walk near their boxes. They are very acrobatic flyers, catching bugs and gliding over the lake. My father used to start his day drinking coffee and watching and listening to his martins. Very relaxing pastime. Martins require some work and expense to get started. First buy a 12 compartment aluminum box or a plastic box which is cheaper. Stay away from wood boxes as these hold over lice and disease. Supply houses also sell plastic gourds that you can hang on lines. Most 12 apartment boxes come with an adjustable pole. Make a hole large enough for a half bag of ready mix concrete. Place the pole in the wet concrete and let sit for 24 hours. Put your house together and install on the pole. Extend the adjustable pole until the house is about 8 or ten feet from the ground. Do not install with any trees nearby. Martins like to swoop into their houses with a clear landing strip. The more open the better. If you have a lot of house sparrows or starlings keep the holes capped until the martins show up.
As the weather warms up, martins will start building nests, using sticks, grass and live oak leaves. They like to put a rim of mud on the front of the nest to keep the eggs from rolling out. Martins like to eat egg shells like grit. Wash your shells out and put in microwave for one minute, then crush and place on ground under the houses. After the martin’s eggs hatch, inspect the nests for dead babies and bird-nest mites. Lower the pole or use a step ladder. Always put the pole in the exact same place as the martins have a GPS locater system to fly into the nest box. Put 1/4 teaspoon of 5% Sevin dust in each nest for the nest mites. These mites host on the babies and the adults will abandon the nest if not controlled. The dust does not bother the birds and they know you are trying to help them. I have watched them fly back into the nest within minutes after I put the dust in and fluff around ridding themselves of mites.
Sometimes you will find more than four babies in one compartment. This is too crowded, move one or more to another apartment next door. The parents don’t mind and will continue to feed them. Hawks, owls, raccoons and snakes will sometimes try to catch the adults and babies but occurs rarely. Purple martin supply companies sell special entry hole attachments and guards to prevent this problem. In late summer the babies will be flying around getting flight training from the parents. They are getting stronger for the migration back to South America for the winter. They will start forming huge flocks in south Texas. One roost near Houston had over 20,000 birds getting ready to migrate. After all the martins have left in late summer, take the boxes down and spray them out with a water hose, then wipe down with bleach water to kill any remaining parasites. Being a purple martin landlord has some responsibly but the benefits are well worth the trouble. You will be delighted by the martin’s graceful flight, bubbling song and insect-eating habits. Thanks dad.