Tips for potential purple martin landlords

Local enthusiast offers advice as birding season nears

Lee Bakewell
Guest Columnist

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of article regarding the process of being a purple martin landlord. 

This article assumes you are already aware of how rewarding it is to manage a colony of purple martins.  If you have a colony of purple martins, you are no doubt eagerly awaiting their return.  But what if you have been trying to get martins only to have thus far failed?  Here are some of the more important things you can do to attract that very important initial pair or three of these unique and delightful birds:

Lee Bakewell tends to his colony of purple martins. The landlord of five years invites fellow bird enthusiasts to visit his colony on the south-southwest shore of Second Lake. Last summer, Bakewell was landlord to 22 pair of adults, which fledged 78 young. Also, nine of his birds were chosen to be “geo-tagged” with state-of-the-art electronic devices. Tagged birds which return this summer will provide invaluable data as to their whereabouts and timeline since leaving Minnesota last September. (Forest Lake Times file photo)

1) Don’t give up!  Some bird lovers try for years, and just can’t seem to get a colony started when all of a sudden, that first pair decides yours will be their honeymoon hotel.

2) Your house should ideally be located in a wide open area at least 40’ away from trees.  Trees provide cover for hawks, who can then ambush the martins.  The martins instinctively know this and will shun such housing.  You may know people who have had martins for years, who seem to violate this rule.  True, there are exceptions, but most likely you will find at the time they acquired their first breeding pair, the trees were much smaller and not a factor.  If you live on the lake, your trees may be too close.  In that case, consider putting your martin house at the end of your dock or even in the water nearby.

3) You must not allow other cavity nesting birds to claim the housing first!  This means house sparrows and starlings.  Both species are extremely territorial…and vicious.  There are several things you can do.  First, don’t open up your housing until subadult martins have been reported in your area, or you actually see them first.  We are not talking about mature, after second year (ASY) “scouts,” because they will always return to the colony where they bred successfully the previous summer.  Thus, they are not prospects for your never-before-occupied housing.  This spring has been warm so you can erect your martin house any time now but only if you have a method of blocking the entry holes.  Use plugs or even duct tape if you have to.  If you open up your housing now, sparrows, starlings, tree swallows, and even blue birds will homestead your martin house.  If sparrows or starlings set up housekeeping, you must deal with them immediately.  Cleaning out their nests will not suffice.  They will instinctively and robotically rebuild immediately.

Sad to say, if you do not have the stomach for trapping and removing these aerial rodents, it is best if you abandon your quest of attracting martins altogether.  The reason being, if you allow sparrows and/or starlings to overrun your martin housing, you will be doing more harm to the martins than if you had not tried to attract them in the first place.  The more competitors you breed in your “martin housing,” the tougher it will be for martins to find undefended housing elsewhere.  Removing nests, as mentioned, does little good.  You must, gulp, try your best to take them out of the gene pool altogether!

While it is legal to ring their little necks, it is not for native species like tree swallows and bluebirds, which are protected.  They require a different approach.  The best practice is to offer alternative housing.  Place TWO bluebird houses, 10 feet apart, in the vicinity of your martin house.  Ideally, you will get a bluebird pair in one and a tree swallow pair in the other.  The bluebird pair will keep all other bluebirds away; ditto for the tree swallows.  Once they have adapted the bluebird boxes as their abode, you can then open up your martin house.  With no house sparrows, starlings, tree swallows, or even bluebirds expressing an interest, your chances of attracting at least one pair of martins will be greatly enhanced.

A couple other quick points:

• Your housing should be painted white.  Martins have been imprinted to this color.  Plus, it makes the entry holes stand out due to the dark insides contrasting greatly with the white exterior.

• Your housing should be spacious.  Most “starter” purple martin houses made of plastic and sold at places like Fleet Farm or Menards, are inadequate mainly because the compartments are too small.  If you don’t have the time to build a “proper house” (or the budget to buy one), these plastic martin houses can usually be made twice as large by drilling holes in the partitions and combining every other unit.  Where you once had, say, 12 units of 6” x 6” x 6,” you end up with just six units that are 6” x 6” x12.”  Martins and other cavity nesters greatly prefer very deep compartments because they instinctively know the shallow ones leave them exposed to owls.  An owl can and will land on the house and easily pluck the young—who are practically sleeping in the doorway of such small compartments— for a tasty midnight snack.  Not only will you have you lost your beautiful young chicks, but the parents will not return the following year.

Lee Bakewell is a bird enthusiast who lives on Forest Lake. Much more information can be found on purple martins at www.purplemartin.org. Feel free to contact Bakewell with questions at LeeSail@aol.com or (651) 451-8481.

  • emily walton

    this is not a comment per say, more of a question–we believe we have a pair of purple martins that have returned to our garage….as in hanging out in the tracks of the garage door and over the door IN the garage to our house….they are certainly the same ones we discovered last year and we are unsure of how to try and relocate them to proper housing ….any suggestions? my parents have offered their martin house, we thought we’d give that a shot…

  • http://www.ccmanor.com Lee

    Most likely you have a pair of barn swallows scoping out a nesting site for this year as well. They like building nests in the eaves of houses and garages. Most people like to shoo them away because of the “inconvenient” bird droppings but before doing that, consider that, like purple martins, barn swallows are also aerial insectivores.

  • Dave Betland

    I am having a problem with swallows taking over the house. I put plexiglas covers over the openings last fall. I am thinking of building a new house and putting it by the lake for the swallows. Do you think that by doing that i could keep the t-14 i have for the Martins?

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