The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Friday, January 30, 2004

Book Review
The Purple Martin
Ro Wauer, January 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

The Purple Martin, by Robin Doughty and Rob Fergus, arrives at a must appropriate time, when these large purple swallows are again taking up residence in our yards. This lovely little book can answer every question you ever had about purple martins. Chapters cover purple martin taxonomy, migration and range, the history of people's interest in martins, conservation, life history, and even purple martin landlords.

The authors present a concise natural history of the bird and its centuries-long companionship with people. They relate stories of how Native Americans and European colonists attracted purple martins, and also how Americans throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries helped martins survive the loss of natural nesting sites by providing houses for them. There are as many as 6 million martins living in more than a million colonies in North America.

Did you know that there are seven species of martins in the Americas? But only the purple martin (Progne subis) occurs in the United States. The authors point out that the common name - martin - is derived "from the Latin "Mars," the Roman God of War. The diminutive "ten" or "tin" is a pet name, leading to speculation that "little mars" refers to the first moth of the yearly calendar - the warring season, when the first so-called scouts arrive in the United States."

Although principally a bird of the eastern half of the U.S., it also breeds in central Canada, a portion of the Sonoran Desert, where it nests in saguaro cacti, and along the West Coast. In winter, all the North American birds occur in South America. The authors discuss records of birds banded in Duncanville, Denton, and Spearman, Texas that have been recovered in Sao Paulo, Brazil. One bird banded in Oregon was recovered some 6,700 miles away in southeast Brazil.

They also include a map that illustrates the various roost sites, places where martins gather before their southward migration. Several of these staging areas can be found in Texas, such as the well-known site at Lake Livingston. The largest know roost site of 700,000 martins is located on a small island in Lake Murray, South Carolina. Another site is situated on the south side of the Causeway Bridge across Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans, where numbers have been estimated on excess of 200,000 birds. Although many of the eastern birds migrate over the Gulf of Mexico, either from the tip of Florida or from Louisiana, the majority passes through Texas.

In the life history section of this informative book, the authors list an amazing variety of "Martin Foods" that include every kind of insect imaginable. They include a photo of a photo of a sign near Griggsville, Illinois that reads "America's Most Wanted Bird - Can eat 2,000 mosquitoes a day." They also list nest competitors: European starling, house sparrow, house wren, and tree swallow. And the most frequent predators include raccoon, great horned owl, barred owl, eastern screech-owl, and four snakes species: black and yellow rat snakes, corn snake, and fox snake.

Another fascinating section of the book is on martin vocalizations. The authors list and describe eleven vocalizations, ranging from their well-known dawn song to a subsong, croak and chortle songs, cheer and choo calls, to a juvenile call. Their dawn song is thought to attract other martins to a nest site in order to enhance colony formation.

This is a great book, and anyone even slightly interested in purple martins cannot help but thoroughly enjoy this comprehensive publication. It includes 128 pages, 16 color and 4 black-and-white illustrations, and four maps. And with a moderate price of $19.95, it is sure to be another success for the University of Texas Press. The ISBN is 0-292-71615-X.


At 4:31 PM, Anonymous Warren Light said...

Please review my Purple Martin Migration Map at

Warren Light


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