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Gourd Nests for North America’s Biggest Swallow.

June 8, 2011

Purple Martin

Back on Memorial Day, I ran across this very neat setup at a park here in central Ohio.  We often think in terms of humans interfering with nature, but in this case, humans have created a wonderful setup for our feathered friends.  On two poles in a sunny meadow, a collection of hollow nesting ‘gourds’ have been placed.

Looking closer, you can see that these gourds are inhabited.

Who are these interesting birds?  And why have they been provided with such special accommodations?

These birds are Purple Martins, the largest swallows in North America.  Their pleasant liquid call is a prime way to identify them on a summer’s day, swooping through the air catching insects.  Like many other swallows, they like to nest in colonies.

Mature males are dark purple and brown; here are two hanging out at the apartments.  Notice the forked tails.

Females and first-year males have dark backs and heads with light streaked breasts- here one sits on top of her gourd.

Purple Martins spend their summers in the eastern and central part of the United States, then winter in South America.  In the eastern part of the country, these birds nest almost exclusively in bird houses and gourds placed by people to attract them.  This is an old tradition.  Native Americans hung gourds for them to nest in long before European settlers came to the New World.  These birds eat a large amount of insects, and that suits people just fine.  Who wouldn’t want a pleasant neighbor such as them keeping the bug population down?

Here’s a mother martin feeding one of her young.

This father uses his tail to prop himself up on the gourd to feed his not-so-little one.

It looks like this male is passing food to a female to feed another hungry youngster.

An interesting fact about these birds is that they almost always eat and drink while flying, catching food on the wing and skimming bodies of water to slake their thirst.  They are fun to watch, wheeling and maneuvering through the air with graceful motions.

This male Red-Winged Blackbird who was singing on territory in the field nearby seemed interested in parts of the gourd nest scaffolding.  Perhaps he was looking for nesting material?  Or is it the instinctual attraction that some birds have to shiny things?  The martin residents did not bother him, so he must have posed no threat.

The martins were coming (far right) and going (far left) frequently, feeding hungry nestlings who will perhaps return to have nests of their own here in the future.

It’s a big wide world outside!

This parent had to lean in far to deliver a bug to hungry offspring.  No problem!

It’s easy to spend lots of time watching such interesting birds.  I didn’t want to leave.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. June 8, 2011 8:00 am

    Best pictures of purple martins I’ve seen and loved your commentary. My husband and I have thought about getting one of those purple martin houses, but after seeing your photos, I think gourds would work just fine and would be less expensive.

  2. Lynn (toomanycrayons) permalink
    June 8, 2011 9:30 am

    A wonderful series of pictures – I can tell you were enjoying yourself too 🙂

  3. June 8, 2011 9:41 am

    Loved reading about them, so interesting, I too didn’t want to leave.beautiful pics.

  4. June 8, 2011 11:45 am

    Great one WS…in my ancestral home, Minnesota…I remember Purple Martin houses in our neighborhood…but some people had a rough time attracting them…Minnesota is the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” and many had houses on their lake property…lots of insects there…great pictures…and read…thanks…

  5. June 8, 2011 12:18 pm

    I’ve never seen anything like these nests before. Fascinating.

  6. June 8, 2011 2:31 pm

    How neat! It’s giving me ideas for what I could do in my own yard, nesting boxes is something that I’ve been thinking about. We don’t have these particular swallows in Germany but lots of other birds who would enjoy gourd nests like this. Great story and loved the photos, thank you for sharing!

  7. June 9, 2011 7:22 am

    Great photos. Really tell the story 😉

  8. June 10, 2011 12:38 am

    That’s a wonderful structure for the martins! Now I will think about doing something like that for the swallows that we have here.

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