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Purple Martins | Spring 2011 Out Here Magazine

Purple martins will return to their "condos" year after year if you create the right conditions, say experts Loretta and Dennis Sitter.

Attract and keep these beautiful birds by being a good 'landlord'

By Nancy Mann Jackson
Photography by Chris Mackler

Purple martins — those lovely swallows with purplish-blue plumage — love good company as much as people do, and that is one key to attracting and keeping them coming back, say amateur experts Dennis and Loretta Sitter.

The Sitters are part of 1 million North Americans who set up the unique purple martin "condos" in their yards each year, but they're among the lucky few who can actually attract breeding purple martins and keep them coming back year after year to their Jonesboro, Ill., home.

Most of their returnees preferred the Sitters' front-yard martin condos, until last year, when Dennis started socializing a little more with the two martin couples who inhabited the backyard condos.

As he built raised beds for a backyard vegetable garden, Dennis chatted with the backyard martins. "He was always out there working close to the martin house, talking to the birds," Loretta says. "The more he talked to them, the more birds came and settled in the housing. We started with only two pairs, but before the season was over, we had seven pairs nest there and successfully raise their young. We can't wait to see how many we will have (this) year."

Besides chatty human landlords who make them feel welcome, martins require a few other conditions to nest successfully and return each season.

Housing must be placed atop a telescopic mounting pole from 10-20 feet high in an open area from 30 to 120 feet from human housing, and a minimum of 40 feet from trees and other brush that can conceal predators.

Cats, hawks, owls, snakes, raccoons, or other birds competing for nesting space will kill baby martins or ravage nests and eggs, Loretta says.

Avoid attaching wires to the martin housing from trees, buildings, or the ground or placing housing within leaping distance of wires, because predators can use these to get to nests, she says.

Loretta recommends making regular nest checks and walking under martin houses daily. "This will not scare the martins away; martins actually prefer human activity close to their housing and get used to the voice of the property owner," she says. "Talk to the birds as you walk and check the ground for signs of problems. Be sure to do this after every bad storm. Wind can sometimes throw babies out of their nests."

The Sitters lower their martins' housing every four or five days to check each nest for evidence of predators, insect infestation, cracked eggs, and "nest competitors."

Successful martin landlords take competing birds seriously.

"Never allow any other species of bird to settle or nest in a martin house, not even desirable birds," Loretta says. "Continually tear out nests of competitors, even those of blue birds and swallows."

"House sparrows and starlings will aggressively repel any martins at unestablished sites," she says. At established martin sites, aggressive birds will fight with nesting martins, kill their nestlings, and break their eggs.

Opening the martin housing too early allows nest competitors to move in before martins arrive, Loretta says. Don't open your condos until your region's purple martins begin to arrive. For the Sitters, that's around March 15, but dates vary from Jan. 15 in the Deep South to the end of June in the northernmost regions.

Nancy Mann Jackson is an Alabama writer.