Purple Martins are migratory songbirds in the swallow family. This large swallow's population has declined in the western United States and is currently declining in the east.
Purple Martins are neotropical migrants. This means they migrate every spring from their wintering grounds in Central and South America (the neotropics) to their breeding grounds in North America. The breeding season begins in January. In July, the Purple Martins begin their journey back to their non-breeding grounds in South America. The full migration may take 2-3 months to complete.
Purple Martins feed on an assortment of flying insects such as wasps, winged ants, and some bees. Additionally, they consume true bugs, flies, beetles, moths, and butterflies. Dragonflies and spiders are also part of the diet. Martins forage almost entirely in the air and may fly low over water or very high as they forage.
Purple Martins are cavity nesters and like to nest in groups or colonies. In the southwest, natural sites such as old woodpecker holes in trees or in giant cactus may be used. In the east, Martins depend on nest sites provided by humans. Manmade or natural gourds, or multi-compartment houses are popular.
Purple Martins are not uncommon, especially in the Southeast, but their numbers have declined over time. Non-native species such as European Starlings and House Sparrows often take over martin houses and injure or kill eggs and nestlings. Purple Martins are sensitive to cold snaps and bad weather may kill birds. Unseasonably cold temperatures lasting more than three or four days will cause the birds to starve because insects are lacking. The loss of woodlands as well as logging practices reduce natural nesting habitat for martins. Fortunately, in the Eastern United States, people have helped counteract the decline of Purple Martins by providing nesting sites and housing for Martins that thwart threats from non-native bird enemies and natural predators such as owls, hawks, and snakes.