Few species in the birding world generate more excitement than does the purple martin, a swallow that arrives for its annual migration to Kentucky in late February.
Purple martins, the largest of the swallows in North America, are totally dependent on man-made housing and faithfully return to the same locations each year, so it’s understandable that human “landlords” anxiously await the return of “their” birds from wintering grounds in South America.
All across the nation, people report dates and locations of scouts on an online database at www.purplemartin.org, maintained by the Purple Martin Conservation Association (PMCA), a nonprofit conservation. Among the earliest arriving purple martins this year will be Mayfield on February 26 and in Murray on February 28.
Migration is drawn out. The first wave consists of senior martins—3 or more years old—followed in a few weeks by 2-year-old adults that sport the full dark-purple color. Females are a bit drab, with a gray breast.
The 1-year-old martins, called subadults—arrive 10 to 12 weeks later than the older birds—in April and May. These younger male birds lack full purple dress and are more easily attracted to new housing locations, which they may not choose until early June.
Some martins arrive dangerously early and may perish when cold temperatures clear the air of flying insects. Fortunately for the martins, some landlords offer supplemental feeding of thawed crickets, live mealworms, or even small bits of scrambled eggs—flung into the air from a plastic spoon and placed on elevated platforms or in compartments.
Many rural Kentucky residents host martins, which are among birds that actually prefer to live near humans, perhaps because there are fewer predators. And martins love to perch on power lines.
While purple martins are relatively common throughout Kentucky, slightly greater numbers are found in the western part of the state and fewer in eastern Kentucky, according to a North American Breeding Bird survey.
A generation ago, many people erected purple martin houses in the belief that these birds consumed mosquitoes, but according to the PMCA martins do not specialize. A martin’s diet is diverse and includes many kinds and sizes of insects, from leafhoppers, flies, and beetles, to dragonflies, bees, wasps, and grasshoppers.
Because purple martins are birds of the open sky—catching insects on the fly—the best tip is to place housing in the most open space available, but where the colony can be enjoyed and monitored.
More information about purple martins can be obtained from the Purple Martin Conservation Association, which is focused on aiding martins and landlords, including a products catalog and information booklet, with advice on attracting and managing a colony.
It also offers data sheets to participate in Project Martinwatch, a national effort in which participants monitor nests and mail information to the PMCA at season’s end. To obtain the booklet or for more information, contact the PMCA at (814) 833-7656 or on the Web at www.purplemartin.org.