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Purple Martins

After wintering in South America, the gregarious Purple Martins are on their way back, and sightings of adult birds have already occurred in the southeastern US. Younger birds will continue to arrive, looking for new housing, for many weeks to come. Purple Martins are one of America's most enjoyed backyard birds. They are fun to watch, pleasant to listen to, and they can eat up to 2000 flying insects per day. Purple Martins are totally dependent upon humans for their housing. Once a colony is established, Martins will return to raise their young year after year, as long as the housing is maintained.

Unlike birds such as Cardinals and Finches that can be attracted by simply setting out feeders, attracting Martins is more of a challenge. Martins, while they are very enjoyable to watch, are picky about their surroundings, and a little effort is required to attract them. Here are some tips from the Purple Martin Conservation Association to help you get started.

1. Martins require specific Purple Martin housing. These may be painted (on the outside only) gourds, or specially designed houses that hold up to 24 or more pairs of birds. Such houses may be made from wood, plastic, or aluminum. Aluminum seems to be the preferred material because it is strong, light, maintenance free, and with proper ventilation, is cooler. Other features to look for are Starling Resistant Entry Holes (SREH), porch dividers, and owl guards. Martins prefer white houses, but the trim can be of any color. The minimum compartment size should be 6x6x6 inches. However, recent research by PMCA indicates that larger compartments such 6x12 inches result in greater occupancy.

2. Martins are also picky about where the house is located. There should be no trees within 20, or preferably, 40 feet of the Martin house. Martins like human company, so locate their house within 30 to 100 feet of your own. Experts believe that Martins, over many years, have learned that houses near human activity reduce predation.

3. Martin houses should be mounted on a free-standing pole, about 10 to 12 feet off the ground. This pole should either telescope or use a hoist feature so that the house can be raised and lowered easily for cleaning. Another important point is that the orientation of the house should not change. That is, the side initially facing south should always face south. Martins recognize their own nest based on orientation and location within the house. So if the house turns 90 degrees for example, the Martins won't be able to locate their own nest.

4. Prevent Predation! One of the biggest problems people have in attracting and keeping Martins is preventing predation. Starlings or House Sparrows will occupy a Martin house unless the entrances are blocked until the Martins arrive. A guard on the pole is necessary to keep Raccoons and snakes from climbing it. An owl guard will keep owls and hawks away from the compartments. Martin "landlords" should check their houses at least weekly for signs of predation. Purple Martins are one of our most enjoyable backyard birds, and with the right site and maintenance, you can have them year after year. For more information, contact the Purple Martin Conservation Association.