Purple Martin Magic

Many people are familiar with the Mexican free-tailed bats who live in and around the Austin area, especially those inhabiting the world’s largest urban bat colony found under the Ann W. Richard Congress Avenue Bridge.  Austinites and tourists thrill at the site of the 1.5 million bats leaving their roost late each summer day for their nightly insect foraging, before migrating to Mexico for winter. Less well-known, but also a remarkable natural event, is the annual migration of the Purple MartinsProgne subis.

Photo courtesy of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology  All About Birds

The Purple Martin is North America’s largest swallow.  Like many other species of birds, they winter in South America, but breed in North America during spring and summer, migrating back and forth during the course of their lives.  Purple Martins are gregarious birds and it’s long  known that they’re comfortable around human habitation. According to the Audubon Society, Native Americans learned that the Martins were valuable assets to their crops and placed hollowed gourds to encourage the Martins to nest nearby.  The Martins chased crows away from crops and vultures away from drying meat.   In modern times, most Purple Martins nest in human provided housing during their breeding season throughout a large area of North America. From July to early August,  they leave their individual nesting sites and converge in enormous roosts preparing for their migration to South America for winter.

Here in Austin,  Purple Martins gather by the hundreds of thousands, roosting in trees along I-35.  Austin is located along one of three major flyways for this Neotropical bird. This year, the birds decided to change things up a bit and instead of roosting in oak trees at Highland Mall, as they have for a couple of years, they’re roosting in trees at the nearby Capital Plaza Shopping Center.

At about 8pm, you can witness a few birds in the air,

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…and a few Austinites on the parking lot, settling into their lawn chairs, getting ready for the show.

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Travis Audubon  hosts Purple Martin Parties on weekend evenings from mid-July to early August and have knowledgeable volunteers ready to answer questions about these cool birds and their life cycle. The evening we visited, one of the volunteers told us that there were an estimated 400,000 birds roosting for the night. It takes a while for the action to kick into gear, but by sundown, there are thousands of birds congregating above the parking lot.

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Swirling in flocks, the Martins fly in unison, flitting into one tree, then another, seemingly indecisive about where to rest their weary beaks for the night.

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The birds are chatty, beautiful and swift flyers, and downright doodee dangerous if you’re standing nearby and don’t hold an umbrella over, or sport a hat on your vulnerable head.

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If you know what I mean.

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I always wear a hat when I watch the Martins.

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The Husband didn’t wear a hat this year and he had to wash his hair when we came home that evening.

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If you know what I mean.

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As more birds gather, they swoop and sway in the air and by sundown, many are perched in the trees for the night.

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I ventured closer to get photos of the roosting birds.

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Yes, I was wearing my hat.

It was very windy that particular evening and I had a hard time getting clear shots of the birds in the swaying branches.

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Most of these birds are females and fledgling chicks, though there are males here too. The male Purple Martin is a deep, iridescent purple and the female is drab, with a light gray chest and white tummy.

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Martins are insectivores who fly fast and high, catching prey on the wing.  They feed during the day, resting at night.

I once placed a Purple Martin house on our property, but it was an abject failure at attracting these lovely birds.  Martins like open space in which to fly and hunt and there are too many large trees around my home to attract these birds.  Most Martins nest in human provided houses, though Martin lovers must contend with European Starlings and House Sparrows who will aggressively displace Purple Martins from their homes. Those wishing to attract Martins must be vigilant in removing the invasive birds if they want Martins to breed.  Older, male scout Purple Martins arrive as early as February to check out  nesting sites, followed a few weeks later by the females and the younger males.  They are fun and interesting to observe during their breeding period and fascinating as they prepare for their trip to South America.

Purple Martin magic.

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Ain’t nature grand?

Thanks to the enthusiastic Travis Audubon members who teach others about the importance of birds, to the businesses who encourage visitors to view the roosting Martins, and to the many Purple Martin lovers who host them during breeding season. You’re all part of the solution.

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Have a good migration, Purple Martins, and a safe trip back next February.  Swing by and say “Hi!”.

 

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26 thoughts on “Purple Martin Magic

  1. ❤ the purple martins! (Who wouldn't? Well, maybe your bees …) Someone once told me that having a bird make a deposit in your hair is supposed to be lucky. She was probably just trying to make me feel better. She didn't actually specify whether that was supposed to be GOOD luck or BAD luck. haha. I love the deepening blues in your photos.

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    • I love them. Eastside Cafe always has their little flock and that’s a great place to see them and Hornsby Bend also has a huge number. I’ve heard the bird-poop-on-the-head thing before, though I must say, when it’s happened to me, I don’t feel so lucky. But maybe you’re right, no one really specifies just what kind of luck it’s supposed to be.

      Once I looked at the photos, I was astonished at how many clouds there were. It wasn’t a cloudy evening, though there were some around. I’m always amazed at the difference at what the camera catches and what I think my eyes saw.

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  2. I loved this post! Didn’t realize that purple martins are neo-tropical migrants. There’s a sort of high rise purple martin complex over at the Chicago Botanic Garden. And thanks for the tip about wearing a hat.

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    • That’s nice to know about the Chicago Botanic Gardens hosting the martins, but I shouldn’t be surprised, I guess. As far as the hat goes, the first time I saw The Gathering (:) ), I didn’t wear a hat or bring an umbrella and came away…unscathed. I think the real trick is not to be looking up with your mouth open….

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    • Come and visit, Chloris. The downside is that the Martin action is during the summer months and we’re a tad toasty here, compared with where you are, but still-come over!!

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  3. Well, I’ve been lucky a couple of times this year, ahem! These are fabulous photos and you are right – the community supporters all deserve accolades for everything they do. We don’t have enough open space to put up houses but a few in our neighborhood do and I’m always happy to see when the houses are being hauled up the post for “the season”.

    Fly safely and travel well little bug eaters – we’ll miss you until your return!

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    • Yeah, I dunno about this bird poop/good luck thing. 🙂 I’m glad for our trees, but sometimes I wish there was a good spot to put up a Purple Martin house. Next house/neighborhood maybe!

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  4. Great post. And what a neat idea to have Purple Martin Parties. Your photos are fabulous as is the information about the Martins. 400,000? Sounds like instant fertilizer to me! I’m always amazed at the way birds can migrate every year, over incredibly long distances back and forth. Year after year. We inherited a Martin house (it was here when we bought our house). It never attracted a Martin as far as I know, but the squirrels have been really happy with it for years!

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    • I agree!! I’m glad there’s an Audubon presence during this migration. Bird watchers are just the most enthusiastic people–and they’re so genuine in their love of birds and desire to teach others.

      That 400,000 really is a big number of birds. The photos really can’t show how many there were, but the sky is filled. And those darned squirrels, if they’re not displacing owls, they’re displacing Martins!!

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    • According to both Audubon and Cornell, the Martins that live in the eastern half of North America, live almost exclusively in human-made houses, whereas those in the western half, live in abandoned woodpecker holes and the like. Lots of people have Martin houses, but often, they house other critters.

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  5. Great post. THose roosting displays must be an amazing sight. THere are a few like it over here in the UK, but with Starlings ( they are protected over here as numbers are declining). THousands will gather in ceratin places and then dance and swoop in the air. If you get a chance google UK Starling murmarations

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    • Thanks, Gina! I’ve seen video of the Starling murmurations and it is magnificent. It’s reminiscent of what we have here with the Purple Martins. You know, maybe we should give you all our extra starlings. I have to smile when I read a European blogger talk about the Starlings’ declining numbers. They’re ever-increasing here, much to our consternation.

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  6. Lovely post! I love these guys and yet also have too many large trees to host them. Have you watched the bats at the McNeil bridge on 35? I’m not sure if you’re north or south, but it’s quite the show without the parking and crowds of Congress (but also without the river, park, and restaurants nearby for after.)

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    • Thanks. I haven’t seen the bats at the McNeil bridge, though I’ve seen the ones downtown. I’m central-north, so it wouldn’t be hard for me to pop up there some weekend evening. I’d better do it soon, I guess. Thanks for the heads-up!

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  7. What a show. I would love to see them. The numbers involved are staggering. We get great aerial displays from the roosting starling population along the river Cam in the evening, but this is a different order of magnitude. Lovely photos.

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    • They are staggering numbers and it’s a very dramatic show. There are Starlings here too, in fact, you can pick them and a native bird, Grackle, flitting around and about with the Martins. But the Purple Martins are definitely, the queens and kings of the sky!!

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  8. There is a walking trail in my neighborhood with homes that back to the trail and there’s a martin house on one of the properties. I saw a few martins in it yesterday. A town nearby gets thousands of grackles in the evening but they’re very loud and some people have complained. But thye’d complain even more if they weren’t there to eat all the bugs!

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  9. Wowwy, so many martins! I had no idea that they had such large congregations, especially in shopping centers! I’ve been meaning to get a house up for them in my backyard, which theoretically, they should like, since my backyard opens up to a large, open park. I guess I haven’t been in too big of a hurry, since several of my neighbors have the houses and I still get to see the martins swooping around. But, I guess I’d still like to help add to their real estate, plus it would give me a bit better pest control, and a closer view of these pretty creatures.

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