The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, February 11, 2007

It's Time to Get the House in Order for Purple Martins
by Ro Wauer

Still winter and too early to get ready for purple martins? Think again. Some of the first males can arrive in South Texas the first week of February.

Although our first martins usually do not appear until mid- to late February or early March, it’s time to prepare for their arrival. That means cleaning the martin house, getting rid of the spiderwebs and insects that may have taken over since the rightful tenants vacated in midsummer of last year, and hoisting it up the pole so it's ready and waiting.

Martin house preparation may include a fresh cover of white paint, at least for the wood houses. The metal houses require less attention. And in recent years, white plastic gourds have become popular. But all that have been previously used must be properly washed down. The light color helps to reflect the hot Texas sun and also to highlight the entrance holes.

In addition to the above preparations, predator guards may be necessary. Guards fastened on the poles keep raccoons, squirrels, and snakes from climbing to the house. And aerial predators, such as hawks and owls that land on the house and reach in to extract an adult or baby martin, can be controlled with an external owl guard. Although these features can often be purchased at nature stores, such as Wild Bird stores, they also can be purchased from the Purple Martin Conservation Association at or by phone at 814-833-7656.

In case this is your first time at attracting martins, here are some easy rules to follow:
* Houses must contain apartments with at least a 6 x 6-inch floor space and an entrance hole 1 ¾ inch in diameter and 1 inch above the floor.
* Houses must be placed on poles 12 to 20 feet above the ground and should be 40 feet away from taller trees, poles, other structures, as well as vines and shrubs, that might allow predators to better reach the house.
* Houses must be free of nesting materials and other debris that accumulated during the off-season.

Purple martins often are rather finicky at the start but seem to put up with shorter poles and poorly maintained structures once the colony is established. Most bird are repeats, but the majority of the first-year birds (usually last year's youngsters) seek out new sites, usually in the general area of their natal home site. This means that a new martin house, especially if it is in the proximity of an active martin house, is likely to be used early on. Distant houses are not as likely to be selected.

Another way to attract first-year martins is to play a tape or CD of their dawn chorus. Playing purple martin songs at a new martin house will certainly attract their attention. And if they like what you have to offer, they will probably remain and nest. If not, give it time, and sooner or later you will attract martins that will begin a new colony.

An established martin colony is likely to return year after year so long as you maintain the house and environment. They will consume millions of flying insects during the short time they are with us. And they will also provide us with their marvelous songs from long before dawn to throughout the day and evening. By mid- to late July they will leave our neighborhoods and begin their 5,000-mile southward migration to their wintering grounds in South America.

But rather than think about their departure, think first about their arrival. It is now time to prepare. Good luck!


At 1:37 PM, Blogger JimPlaysGolf said...

Will purple martins eat cicada killers? We have a horrible infestation of cicada killers, and both exterminators that came out said they would be taking our money to try to get rid of them.


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