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Exploring Nature

Purple martins are amazing acrobats prized for eating mosquitoes.
Graphic from Metro Creative

Exploring Nature

Exploring Nature: Purple Martins

Sunday, February 12, 2023

February is the month when one of North America’s favorite birds begins to return after spending the winter in South America.

This is the purple martin, the largest of our swallows at about eight inches. It is definitely the bird more people try to attract than any other.

People like purple martins because they are amazing acrobats and also maintain a cheerful chatter. Plus, and this is a big plus, they eat lots of insects, including wasps, beetles, flies and bugs. Many of these are caught on the wing as the martins fly in sweeping circles, alternating rapid flapping with short glides.

These birds are especially prized for eating mosquitoes, although their prowess in this regard is probably overrated.

Many people put up purple martin houses to attract this bird. This is nothing new as Native Americans hung hollow gourds near their lodges to attract nesting martins. Workers on colonial plantations continued this practice of the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes.

Martins migrate through most of Texas from February through May and again from July into October. They are most abundant in the eastern and central counties and uncommon in West Texas. They range across North America as far as Canada, but are scattered and local in the West.

Before people provided houses, these birds made do with hollow trees and old woodpecker holes — and still do when necessary.

After the breeding season, purple martins gather nightly in enormous colonial roosts for several weeks before migration. A roost of more than 20,000 birds in 1990 slowed motorists on a highway bridge in Lake Livingston.

Keep an eye out, you could be seeing this swooping, gliding swallow around your place.

San Marcos Record

(512) 392-2458
P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666