A Brief History of the Purple Martin and the Purple Martin Conservation Association

Twelve thousand years ago, before the first human beings arrived in the New World over the Bering Land Bridge, Purple Martins were a dramatically different bird than they are today. Back then, martins nested only in the abandoned nesting chambers of woodpeckers, or in the other natural cavities they could find in dead trees or in cliffs. Today, east of the Rockies, martins nest only in human-supplied housing; either in elaborate bird house condominiums known as "martin houses," or in natural or artificial gourds.

Why did Purple Martins stop nestingin their ancestral ways?Perhaps by accident Native American Indians discovered that martins could be lured into their villages by hanging up gourds with holes cut in their sides. Over hundreds and perhaps thousands of bird generations (i.e., years), martins gradually gave up their ancestral ways in a process now known as a "behavioral tradition shift." Here's how the tradition shift may have occurred: First, a pair of martins probably tried nesting in a long-handled dipper gourd hung near a pond by natives as a drinking utensil. When the Indians discovered this curiosity, they may have been amused and started hanging other gourds for martins around their campsites.

Because they were nesting near humans (where predators are scarcer) and nesting in chambers far larger than woodpecker cavities, these martins were able to lay more eggs and successfully raise more young to fledging age than martins nesting in natural cavities. It would have been adaptive for the surviving young from these gourd nests to seek them out for nesting sites when they became breeders the following year. Concurrently, the Indians may have discovered other benefits, uses, and pleasures from having martins nesting in their company. For instance, documents from the 18th and 19th centuries suggest that these early Americans attracted martins to their villages because they functioned like scarecrows, chasing crows away from their corn patches, and vultures away from their meats and hides hung out to dry. The mutually-beneficial relationship established then, still exists today.

It's fun to speculate what additional benefits these Native Americans may have derived from their custom of martin attraction. Perhaps martins were like alarm clocks, since they begin singing so early and regularly in the morning. Maybe they were like both radios and televisions, since they continually sing such pleasant songs and their behaviors are so entertaining to watch. They certainly would have been like calendars, since every phase of their annual cycle (from arrival, territory establishment, nest-building, egg-laying, hatching, fledging, and departure) is done on a regular and predictable schedule. They may have been like watchdogs, since they are notorious for giving alarm calls when predators or strangers approach. There is also evidence suggesting that Native Americans may have used the pulverized bodies of martins as mothballs to protect their furs from the ravages of insect vermin during summer storage.

Perhaps for some (or all) of these reasons a cultural tradition began and other native tribes took up the habit of hanging gourds for martins. Gradually, over time, more and more martins chose gourds for nesting, and fewer and fewer chose natural cavities.

When the European colonists arrived in the new world they too adopted the Indian custom of hanging gourds for Purple Martins, but they also supplemented them with ceramic gourds and wooden martin houses. Eventually, by the early 20th century, the entire eastern race of Purple Martins nested only in human-supplied housing, and the tradition shift was complete.

Today, east of the Rockies, Purple Martins are the only bird species totally dependent on humans for supplying them with nesting sites. And they have been managed by man longer than any other North American species. If humans were to stop supplying martins with homes, they would likely disappear as a breeding bird in eastern North America.

Compounding the martin's precarious situation was the introduction of the European Starling and House Sparrow into this continent from Europe in the 1800's. These non-native species out-compete martins for the nesting compartments people offer. Because of this, martins need our help more than ever, and the Purple Martin Conservation Association was formed in 1987 to give them that help. Won't you please join our efforts? E-Mail us for information on how to become a member of the PMCA. Members receive four issues of the Purple Martin Update, our 32-page color membership magazine, and discounts on selected purchases from our mail-order catalog. Members are also invited to participate in cooperative research projects with the PMCA at their colony sites.

The Purple Martin Forum. We suggest that all persons interested in Purple Martins visit the Purple Martin Forum. The Purple Martin Forum is a web site that hosts a Purple Martin discussion group/message board that is accessible by anyone with internet access. Many knowledgeable and experienced martin landlords post information to this forum and newcomers seek advice. Topics range from martin behavior, martin housing, colony management, troubleshooting, and how to successfully attract martins to a new site. The forum has its own search engine so that readers are able to access all articles that contain the word(s) they are looking for, such as "SuperGourd", or "starling." To visit the Purple Martin Forum click here.