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What Time is it in Nature: Purple Martin

May 17, 2013

The Purple Martins (Progne subis) have returned to Prairie Ridge once again!  These charismatic swallows are welcome spring and summer visitors that nest on the grounds.

Purple Martin female

Purple Martins are the largest swallow species in the US and share the distinctive fast and agile flight pattern of their smaller relatives.  Male Purple Martins are easy to distinguish from all other swallows by both their large size and their coloration, deep blue-black over the entire body.  Females are dark with dark blue iridescence over part of their backs and wings, but are brown on the belly and breast.  Both sexes have slightly forked tails and substantial heads and beaks that are uncharacteristic in swallows.

Purple Martin flight is acrobatic and agile as the birds swoop around searching for insects to feed on.  They often fly in alternating bursts of flapping and gliding. They are known for approaching the entrances to their nests very quickly, with wings folded up and diving toward the opening at great speeds.  Purple Martins also vocalize extensively, both in flight and at rest, with chortling and chirpy calls.

Purple Martins migrate from their overwintering sites in Brazil to breed in North America.  They typically arrive in North Carolina in the spring and rely almost entirely on nest boxes and gourds provided by humans to build nests.  Martin pairs are monogamous and both choose a nest site and build their nests together.  Because people typically put out many houses for martins, you may see several couples in the same area and small flocks of birds flying together around nesting sites.  After laying and raising 2-7 chicks, the Martins will continue feeding in the area until they return to South America for the winter.  Martins show great site fidelity and will return to the same area every year so long as nesting areas continue to be available.

The Prairie Ridge Purple Martins have been actively working on nest building and will soon lay their first eggs.  If you’ve never seen these birds before, we encourage you to come see them as they fly around their nests outside the Outdoor Classroom.  And even if you have seen Purple Martins before, they’re worth seeing again.  Come on out and see them!

Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive.

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photo by Chris Goforth)

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