In Your Backyard: Eagle Heights Apartments for Purple Martins

Volunteers pose for a photo after preparing the Purple Martin house for the birds’ spring return. You can see an Eagle Heights Apartment in the background. Photo by David Liebl.

By Bryn Scriver

Have you ever noticed the little white “apartment house” on the top of the hill by Eagle Heights Gardens and wondered who it was for?

Five Purple Martin eggs rest on a bed of leaves in one of houses’ “apartments”. Photo by Gisela Kutzbach.
Five Purple Martin eggs rest on a bed of leaves in one of houses’ “apartments”. Photo by Gisela Kutzbach.

It’s a nest box for Purple Martins, a native songbird in the swallow family.

Purple Martins are a favorite of bird watchers for their acrobatics. They eat insects while flying by picking them right out of the air. They drink this way too by skimming the surface of a pond or lake and dipping their bills. FUN FACT: Purple Martins aren’t purple. Adult males sport dark blue iridescent plumage with brown-black wings and tail. Females and immature birds are duller with more gray on the head and chest.

Purple Martins are dependent on humans for their survival. In the eastern U.S. Purple Martins nest almost exclusively in human supplied housing. Their population decreased sharply in the 20thCentury as the populations of House Sparrows and European Starlings rose and competed for nest cavities. Early Native Americans purportedly hung gourds for the birds and naturalist John James Audubon reported seeing them on country inns during his travels in the 1830s.

The nest box near the garden was installed by volunteers from the Friends of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve in spring 2017. It’s overseen by Dr. Anna Pidgeon from the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology. Each spring the volunteers eagerly await the return of the Purple Martins from their wintering grounds in Brazil, Bolivia, and elsewhere in South America.

These Purple Martin nestlings found on June 12 are about 4 days old. Photo by Richard Ness.
These Purple Martin nestlings found on June 12 are about 4 days old. Photo by Richard Ness.

A check of the house on June 16 revealed a total of 24 Purple Martin eggs and 11 nestlings! You can follow the progress of the Purple Martin colony on the Friends of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve website, where volunteer Gisela Kutzbach regularly posts updates, photos and videos.