Thanks to Native Americans, Purple Martins Underwent a Complete Tradition Shift

Reprinted from: Purple Martin Update 8(1): 8-9

James R. Hill, III
Purple Martin Conservation Association


 Native Americans were the first to discover the benefits of attracting Purple Martins to their villages by hanging hollowed-out gourds.


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, it's believed martins nested only in the abandoned nesting chambers of woodpeckers, or in any natural cavities they could find in tall, dead trees, on cliffs, or under boulders. 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 and artificial gourds.

Why did Purple Martins stop nesting in the ancestral ways they had used for millennia? The answer is that Native American Indians started "messing with Mother Nature." Perhaps by accident, Native Americans discovered that martins could be lured into their villages by hanging up gourds with holes cut in their sides. In 1831, Alexander Wilson wrote: "even the solitary Indian seems to have a particular respect for this bird." He gives an account of the methods used by the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians who "cut off all the top branches from a sapling near their cabins, leaving the prongs a foot or two in length, on each of which they hang a gourd, or calabash, properly hollowed out for their convenience." In 1929, Forbush added that "when saplings were not conveniently situated the Indians set up poles, fastened crossbars to them and hung the gourds to these crossbars." According to Cooke's 1884 account, the Chippewa Indian name for the martin was: "Mu-ku-dé-shau-shaú-wun-ni-bí-si."

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 in martins: 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 camps.

Because they were nesting near humans (where predators are scarcer) and nesting in chambers far larger than the ones in old woodpecker cavities, these martins were able to lay more eggs and raise more young than martins nesting in tiny, natural cavities. Perhaps the biggest reason martins switched to gourd clusters, though, is because they are a "super stimulus," relative to tree snags with only one or two nest cavities. In martins, the more nest cavities a site has, the more attractive the site is. This is because adult, male martins instinctively try to engage in extrapair copulations with the females of the pairs using the neighboring cavities. Males living in colonies can leave two to three times the number of offspring they would if they only nested solitarily and just copulated with their own mate. In any event, the surviving young from these gourd nests would have "imprinted" on gourds and sought 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 acted like scarecrows, chasing crows away from their corn patches, and vultures away from their meats and hides hung out to dry. It's fun to speculate what additional benefits these Native Americans may have derived from their custom of martin attraction. Perhaps the 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 such a regular and predictable schedule. They would have been like ancient bug zappers, since they would have eaten the annoying insects that flew around camp. They might have been like watchdogs, since they are notorious for giving alarm calls when predators or strangers approach. And finally, from the journals of French fur trappers, there is strong evidence to suggest that Native Americans Indians may have used the bodies of martins for the most bizarre function of all; as moth balls to protect their furs from the ravages of insect vermin during summer storage. In 1753, Dumont wrote: "The savages have another secret for the preservation of their beaver, otter, bear, or fox skins, from injurious animals, especially moths, and those Frenchman who go to trade among them do not fail to take advantage of this in the preservation of their pelts. For this purpose they make use of the body of a certain bird which in many places is called a 'fisher' [probably a heron or a kingfisher]. After having dried it, some of them cut it into many small pieces which they put here and there on their skins. Others reduce it to fine powder, which they scatter over the skin side of the hair. In whatever way one makes use of it, it is certain that the odor of this bird drives away moths and all other destructive creatures which might be able to injure the peltries. It is asserted that the martin (martinet), a kind of bird which resembles the swallow, has the same virtue and the same properties."

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

When European colonists arrived in the new world, they too adopted the Indian custom of hanging natural gourds for martins, but they 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. By then, the tradition shift was complete. Today, in the 1990's, it is so rare to find martins nesting in natural cavities in eastern North America, that to do so would justify the publication a scientific paper. The Purple Martin Conservation Association knows of no such places where martins are still nesting in their ancestral ways. The mystery is why the desert and western races of martins haven't undergone a similar tradition shift. The western race is just now beginning to take to human-supplied housing.

This long association with, and now total dependency on, humans, helps explain why martins prefer (require?) that their housing not be placed any farther than about 120 feet from human homes, and perhaps why they are the tamest of all wild birds. Today, east of the Rockies, they 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 an eastern bird - I don't believe they could go back to nesting in trees - the eastern virgin forest is gone, and with it, the emergent, hollow trees they once required. In any event, we can thank the Native Americans for "making" martins the "semidomesticated" birds they are today.

Blue Memory

Millen Brand


Suppose in this meadow back from the Unami, in this large, rough, larch-shadowed space where cow's horns dig holes in heal-all, mud, and nettle, suppose here the original Delawares reappeared and planted two nine-foot poles, fastened a crossbar, and on it hung gourds hollowed out for purple martins, nests of noise companionable to the nearby tents. The gourds would be tied with threads of larch root torn from the creek ooze - pull-and-reel, pull-in-the-rain, pull-and-peel.

No Delaware knew that those blue immigrants skimmed from Brazil to these nests under a hill, but the moment for attaching the crossbar and gourds was timed exactly to their coming in. Once homed, they swept the air clean, flying faster than dragonflies, hunters' bolts. The young birds' throats called incessantly to be fed - run-and-catch, run-in-the-sun, run-and-snatch - an aerial wampum of blue hawk heads threaded by the wind.

Under the communal dazzle of those wings the Indian wars began. White settlers reminded the Delawares of the treaty that the settlers could buy from them "as much land as a man could walk around in a day." In the "Walking Purchase," three white men ran: "No sit down to smoke, no shoot squirrel, just lun, lun, lun all day long."

Brother Onas changed. Penn's sons changed. No matter that the Iroquois had told the Delawares: "We made Woman of you." The no-longer-woman broke the peace.

As fighting started, Conrad Weiser talked to his Indian friends with the inveterate hope of his concern for them. "To fly with my family I can't do. I must stay if they all go." He stayed. The martins still hunted with their blue strokes, skeins of harsh song, zhupe, zhupe,
but their gourds were gone.

Reprinted from the book, Local Lives, by Millen Brand, published in 1975 by Clarkson Potter, New York, NY.

Copyright 1997 by Purple Martin Conservation Association. All Rights Reserved.

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