For over 20 years, my wife and I have wanted purple martins to nest where we lived. We bought books about attracting martins. I set up a wooden, three-story purple martin house with the proper measurements and studied the best places to attract the birds. I made white-painted gourd houses, hung them from a telescoping pole the proper height above the ground, and installed a baffle to deter climbing raccoons and other predators.
I measured the site’s distance from large trees and from our house. I even carved and painted realistic martin decoys, which I put up each year. I bought a CD recording of the dawn song of purple martins and played it from April until July from 5-8am. We watched as house wrens, tree swallows, and bluebirds successfully nested in our martin house. But no martins.
Sometimes, three or four martins would show up. They would call out loudly, circle lazily around the house or gourd rack, or hover in front of it. They sat in the upper branches in a dead tree nearby, checking things out. But they neither stayed nor even landed on the house! At times, we held our breath when a few martins would come, circle around, and then leave. Something didn’t suit them.
In 2016, we bought a historic red brick farmhouse a mile or so from the Potomac River—with a barn, woods, a spring-fed stream and five acres of pasture. I bought a new aluminum four-tiered martin house and put it up the following March. I set up a couple of decoys.
Finally, one May morning, three purple martins appeared. They came everyday but seemed to shy away from the decoys. After I swallowed my pride and took my decoys down, four purple martins came back, hung around for an hour or so, and then left. They repeated this daily routine until the end of July, but never nested or stayed overnight. Bruce Johnson, then owner of Wild Birds Unlimited, Inc., in Winchester, assured me they would return to nest next year.
Bruce was right. Last May, three pairs of martins came, and by June, three out of eight chambers contained active nests. By summer’s end, all three nests had produced baby martins—not bad for a first-year colony. The first brood fledged at the end of June, and the last one left near the end of August.
Maintaining a martin colony requires a firm, long-time commitment from the landlord. Many folks are much more hands-on than I was last summer. They check the nests regularly during the breeding season, examining nestlings for parasite infestations and, when necessary, replacing their nests and dusting the babies with insecticide.
I only lowered the house on the telescoping pole and opened the chamber to check the nests once. I hated disturbing the birds, especially because they all seemed to be just fine without my interference.
The Purple Martin Conservation Association offers helpful information for martin landlords, a blog where you can connect with fellow enthusiasts to share your concerns, and sales and discounts on martin housing and supplies. I can’t wait for them to come back this spring!
— Doug is an artist, writer, and naturalist living near Shepherdstown. He also submitted the art for this piece.