Purple martins – these absolutely stunning birds with unique glossy plumage with shades of blue! What are they? What do they eat? Do they starve? How can you help them if they’re suffering from bad weather? You’ll find all the answers below!
What Are Purple Martins?
Purple martins are scientifically called Progne subis. They are passerine birds and the largest swallows in North America. They can be found in open areas in North America and on the west coast from British Columbia to Mexico. They live either in nests they create themselves or in artificial hollow gourds or houses that people make for them. That’s why they’re most often found near cities. During winter, these birds migrate to Brazil, Bolivia, and parts of Peru.
Purple martins are the largest species among the 90 species in the Hirundinidae family. Purple martins have an average wingspan of 15 inches and a length of 7.9 inches. They weigh approximately 1.6 – 2.1 oz.
Female and male purple martins are of different colors. Males are black with a glossy share of steel blue. Females are white on their underparts and dark on top, with some steel blue shades. Males and females look about the same when they are young and keep that look until they are about two years old when their feathers are fully grown.
Purple martins are famous for their agility and speed. On the other hand, they’re extremely territorial with their feeding spots and will fight with other birds over them.
What Do Purple Martins Eat?
Purple martins are insectivores. Insectivores are carnivorous animals that eat insects. Purple martins eat butterflies, moths, crane flies, mayflies, caddisflies, dragonflies, and stoneflies. They also love feeding on box elder bugs, European corn borers, and paper wasps. They may also eat grasshoppers, crickets, bugs, and eggshells, which provide calcium, while the insects give them the necessary protein.
Sometimes martins can also eat fruits, such as mulberries, black gum tree fruits, and raspberries. They do not need much water because they process the liquids from the insects they ingest.
How Do Purple Martins Feed?
Purple martins feed by hawking. Birds with this feeding strategy catch flying insects in the air. Martins usually feed when they are at 150-500 ft altitude. However, sometimes they catch insects on the ground, too, especially if the weather isn’t favorable for flying. Thanks to their speed, agility, and excellent eyesight, martins are great hunters who can spot insects from 100 feet away. Incredible, isn’t it?!
These birds are constant feeders. Purple martins can survive, at best, a day or two without feeding. Both males and females go on “hunting trips” during the day and may spend up to 5 hours looking for and catching insects.
How Do Purple Martins Feed Baby Birds?
Purple martins feed their babies by regurgitating insects. This is most often done by the male purple martin, although females sometimes get involved.
How Do You Know a Purple Martin Is Underfed?
Purple martins may be underfed when the weather isn’t favorable. Drooping wings may be a sign that they’re suffering and their systems are digesting their flight muscles. If you have birds around your house and you notice this, you can feed them some insects to help them survive.
How Do Purple Martins Survive the Cold Weather?
Purple martins would rely on the so-called communal roosting if they don’t migrate to warmer countries during winter or if the weather suddenly worsens. They’ll live alongside other birds to conserve body heat and save energy. If you notice a gourd “stuffed” with purple martins, you can provide them with supplemental food.
What Can You Feed Purple Martins With?
If you stumble upon a bird that obviously needs to eat, you can give it crickets, mealworms, or scrambled eggs. Purple martins don’t usually eat crickets, but they may end up enjoying this insect as it resembles a grasshopper. Mealworms are rich in protein, which is extremely important for purple martins’ survival. Once your birds accept eating crickets and mealworms, you can give them scrambled eggs. Don’t forget to break them into very small pieces.
How Should You Feed Purple Martins?
Before choosing a feeding technique, you should evaluate which is best for how the bird looks and feels, how serious the situation is, and where you are. Some feeding techniques you can choose from are tossing, platform feeding, and in-cavity feeding.
If you’ve never done this before, you may want to try tossing crickets or mealworms into the air. However, this doesn’t ensure optimal results, especially if the birds are weak. If they aren’t too weak, they’ll either catch them or go on foot to eat the mealworms that have been dropped.
Platform feeding implies offering food on a platform and is the best method for weak birds because they don’t have to fly or walk to get the food.
Lastly, you can directly place food in their gourds or houses.
Incredible Purple Martin Facts
- Purple martins aren’t actually purple! Their plumage is mostly black.
- Contrary to popular belief that purple martins eat thousands of mosquitos a day, these insects don’t represent a big part of a purple martin’s diet.
- The purple martin population registered a serious crash in the 20th century. It was linked to the spread of European starlings. Alongside house sparrows, they are one of the biggest purple martin enemies because they fight with martins over nest cavities.
- Purple martins are synanthropic birds. This means they have developed a strong bond with humans. The relationship between martins and humans started before the big population crash in the 20th century. In the 19th century, indigenous people and African Americans hung gourds for purple martins.
- Purple martins can reach speeds of up to 40 miles per hour!
- Most purple martins rely on artificial gourds, so their population is strongly connected to humans. A study shows that, unfortunately, their population may decline in the following decades, as most people who care for them are 50 years of age or older. Younger people have neither the resources to “house” the birds nor the enthusiasm.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/Jeff Huth
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- ATSHQ, Available here: https://www.atshq.org/what-do-purple-martins-eat/
- Purple Martin, Available here: https://www.purplemartin.org/purple-martins/troubleshooting-problems/62/supplemental-feeding/