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Colorful Birds of Montana: Purple Martin

One of the beautiful bluish birds often found in Montana is the purple martin. It breeds in the state, though it isn’t a year-round resident.

Purple martins are relatively well-known birds as they are found in much of the US and Canada, though they breed primarily in the more temperate areas. They also range through Mexico, Central America, and most of South America. Many people in the US have no doubt seen them, even if they didn’t know what the birds were. They have also been spotted in Europe.

This bird is the largest species of swallow and is about 8 inches in length, with a 16-inch wingspan. This makes them somewhat larger than a house sparrow but a little smaller than an American robin. They are appropriately named, though. The coloration of the males is primarily iridescent dark blue to deep purple, with darker wings and tail. Females are duller in color, with gray and some white. In flight, the males often appear almost black.

Female purple martins in the west tend to have more white on their bellies than do the female purple martins in the east.

Purple martins are insect eaters, normally taking insects while in flight, especially larger insects, such as dragonflies. As with other swallows, the flight is rapid and subject to quick turns back and forth with an agility that is almost acrobatic.

One of the most endearing qualities of purple martins is that they take readily to birdhouses, particularly ‘bird condominiums’, where many birdhouses are connected together. This is a highly social bird.

Purple martins also have an incredible trait. Often, when they enter their nest, whether a nook or cranny or a nesting box, they do so at high speed. They tuck their wings and dive into their nest like a missle, somehow avoiding becoming splattered all over the back wall of the nest. This isn’t the only bird that does this and it is a well-known habit of wood ducks in particular, yet this amazing feat is often enough to leave an observer in awe.

This swallow also nests in natural cavities and abandoned nests made by other birds, such as woodpeckers. Still, people have been erecting bird boxes for these birds for a very long time. The Cherokee Indians hollowed out large gourds and hung them up as nesting boxes for purple martins before the American colonial period began.

Although this bird is listed as a species of least concern, there are far fewer of them today than there were a century ago. The plunge in the population of purple martins coincides with the introduction of European starlings to North America. Both starlings and house sparrows compete for available nesting sites. The human habit of putting up nesting boxes has proven very useful for purple martins.

Besides being rather fun to watch, these are also helpful birds that eat a lot of insects that might otherwise be pests. Purple martins have even been known to eat fire ants, primarily when the ants take wing for mating.

  • To your knowledge, have you ever seen a purple martin?

    • Yes
    • No
    • We’ve even had birdhouses/nesting boxes for purple martins
    • No, but this is a beautiful bird


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Written by Rex Trulove

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