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Purple Martin Project

Nature Canada / What we do / Bird Conservation / Purple Martin Project

Purple Martin Project

Nature Canada’s Purple Martin Project is part of an international partnership between university researchers, naturalist groups, the Canadian Wildlife Service and citizens like you to protect and recover declining Purple Martin populations.

The project aims to significantly help the conservation of the Purple Martin. We’re accomplishing this by using small tracking devices to determine where these birds go after they leave their colonies and throughout their migrations and wintering activities to better understand the risks they face away from their summer homes.

We also want to locate post-breeding roost sites where Martins gather in massive flocks before departing on their fall migration to Brazil. Through this project, we are raising the profile of this iconic species in Eastern Ontario through community outreach and volunteer recruitment. Our work requires partnerships with people who have Purple Martins on their property—also known as “landlords”—and community members like you!

How will this help the birds?

Purple Martins are in serious trouble, especially in Ontario. Canadian populations are experiencing sharp population declines and the causes are not clear.  We want to use science to learn more about the full annual cycle of the Purple Martin and other related species, and identify causes for their declines in order to help recover their populations.

Is this going to harm the birds or cause them to abandon their nests?

image of Adult martin with geo at Julie Hovis colony

No! It won’t harm the birds and is highly unlikely to cause them to abandon their nest.

Our main activity will be attaching miniature tracking devices to adult Martins (these include either a “geolocator” or a “GPS” tag). The birds will be handled by individuals who are experienced, trained, and certified. This work has been carried out for years at a variety of nesting sites across North America. The risk is minimal and the techniques are well refined. It will cause little disturbance to the colony. The survival rates of birds carrying these tracking devices are no different than those wearing leg bands. The birds will wear the device until we can retrieve them the following year.

Like you, we also care for Martins and we realize that we cannot afford to sit back and watch them slowly disappear from our neighbourhoods.

I have Purple Martins on my property. What can I do?

As someone with Purple Martins on their property, you can help this declining species birds in meaningful ways by participating in our Purple Martin Project. By participating in this project, you will be contributing directly to the science that is needed to determine the causes for their declines and help find solutions.

You can help by giving us permission to occasionally visit your colony to monitor nests and look for birds carrying tracking devices. In the event that a bird carrying a tracking device has returned to nest at your colony, we would hope to capture that bird to recover the device. This will not require more than a few hours of work per summer.

At most, we would like to put tracking devices on the adult birds in your colony. This would involve trapping a number of adults about a week after their eggs have hatched. At this time the birds are most tolerant of handling.  The work may take our team of skilled scientists a few days to complete.

Purple Martin Project in the media

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Our Partners

In addition to a generous contribution from an anonymous private funder and private land owners, Nature Canada is also proud to partner with:

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What is a Purple Martin?

In case you didn’t already know, the Purple Martin is the largest North American swallow. It is part of a group of species called aerial insectivores that feed on flying insects. Other examples include swifts, swallows, fly-catchers, night-jars, and whip-poor-wills. Purple Martins breed throughout North America and migrate to Brazil for the winter.

Purple Martins at risk:

Aerial insectivores (including the Purple Martin) are in serious trouble, especially in Ontario. They are experiencing widespread population declines, yet the exact cause remains unclear. Many possible culprits have been suggested including environmental threats along their migratory route and at their wintering grounds, decrease in food availability, inability to adapt to climate change, competition with Starlings and House Sparrows as well as exposure to pesticides and wind power projects.

What are humans doing?

West of the Rocky Mountains, Purple Martins nest mainly in natural cavities such as old woodpecker holes. However, in the east, they nest almost exclusively in apartment-like nest houses provided by their human ‘landlords’. This tradition of human dependence has been in place for centuries. Purple Martin landlords take care of their birds by maintaining their house and monitor the nests. They also help to provide protection against predators such as squirrels and hawks, and keep Martins safe from aggressive intruders such as Starlings and House Sparrows.

image of Purple Martin by Kurt Hennige

For the biology nerds:

Scientific Classification:
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Hirundinidae
Genus: Progne
Species: P. subis


If you have Purple Martins on your property, lucky you!

Here is how you can help:

Purple Martins with geolocator and leg band

  1. Send us your observations of the conditions and activity of the birds, at mmacintosh@naturecanada.ca
  2. Let us know if you see Purple Martins with leg bands or geolocators.

Leg bands are found on both legs of a bird, one silver band (possibly brightly painted) and one purple band with white letters and numbers.

Geolocators are small tracking devices attached to a bird’sback with small loops that go around their legs, like a backpack. You can usually see a small part of the device sticking out of the feathers on the birds’ lower backs.



Other ways to help protect your Purple Martin colony

Here are a few more ways you can help us collect information on Purple Martins:

  • Grant us permission to work with the Martins on your property.  We would be most appreciative and will provide you with reports on our work and recognition if you wish.
  • Spread the word: Let other community members and Martin landlords know about the project and encourage them to become involved.
  • Nest checks: If your Martin house can be safely lowered, you can perform weekly nest checks. Nest checks are simple and yield valuable information. Simply ask us, and we will provide you with the training.

Learn more about Purple Martins

Check out the Ontario Purple Martin Association (OPMA) and the Purple Martin Conservation Association (PMCA) websites. These associations both offer many resources and information such as how to build a Martin house, how to attract Martins, where to buy a Martin house, how to care for Martins, plus articles, news, and much more.

Interested in buying a Purple Martin house?

Purple Martins are quite picky about where they choose to live! They require very specific materials, dimensions, height, and accessibility for their houses in order to comfortably raise their young, keep safe from predators, and protect themselves against extreme weather conditions. When selecting a Martin house and location, it is important to keep these needs in mind. Both the PMCA and OPMA websites provide excellent guidelines, resources, and recommendations for choosing a Martin house and location.

The most highly recommended Purple Martin houses for use in the Ontario region are T-14 (Troyer) wooden houses which are adaptable for starling resistant entrances. Wooden houses are preferred over aluminum due to low spring temperatures in Ontario.

T-14 Martin houses are available to purchase on the PMCA website. Custom built Amish Purple martin T-14 houses are also sold at Newark Build Sheds & Lawn Furniture – 593060 Oxford Road 13, Norwich, Ontario, NOJ 1PO, Canada.

Send your observations and comments to Megan MacIntosh at mmacintosh@naturecanada.ca, or call 613-562-3447 ext. 234, toll free, 1-800-267-4088 ext. 234


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