The Purple Martin (Progne subis) is one member of a group of species called aerial insectivores which feed exclusively on flying insects and are important indicators of overall ecosystem health. Canadian populations of aerial insectivores are experiencing sharp declines and the cause is not clear. Like you, we care for Purple Martins and want to keep hearing the cheerful sounds of this beloved neighborhood bird. By learning more about the source of their decline and engaging communities in conservation efforts we can help to identify solutions, improve breeding success, recover populations and ensure long-term stewardship.
Nature Canada’s Purple Martin Project is part of an international initiative between university researchers, naturalist groups, Purple Martin landlords and citizens to help protect and recover aerial insectivore populations.
The Purple Martin Project
The Project has three key elements:
Purple Martin Tracking and Monitoring
Our project began as part of an international partnership with university researchers to track the migration and wintering activities of Purple Martins in order to better understand the risks they face. Small tracking devices (geolocators and GPS) are placed on adult birds by trained and certified individuals. The birds wear the device like a backpack until we can retrieve them the following spring. To date, we have successfully deployed nearly 80 tracking devices at colonies in Eastern Ontario.
Each summer we conduct frequent community-based monitoring of important breeding sites and vulnerable pre-migratory roost sites where Purple Martins gather with other swallows in large numbers.
Education and Stewardship
The Purple Martin is closely connected to people as they breed almost exclusively in apartment-like bird houses provided by their human ‘landlords’. Effective community engagement and stewardship is therefore a key element for the conservation of this human-dependent species. We aim to sustain project benefits and long-term stewardship by engaging public schools, university students, First Nations, Purple Martin landlords, community volunteers and naturalist clubs in all of our activities.
A lack of quality breeding habitat poses an urgent threat to the survival of this species. We are working to address habitat concerns by installing new Purple Martin houses and updating existing houses. Improving breeding conditions helps to provide protection against nest-site competitors and predators as well as make houses more accessible for monitoring and maintenance.
In addition to a generous contribution from an anonymous private funder and private land owners, Nature Canada is proud to partner with:
We wish a heartfelt thank you the generous funders, extremely valued landlords, and dedicated team of volunteers who have brought this project to life.
Did you know?
The Purple Martin (Progne subis) is the largest species of swallow in North America. Purple Martins breed throughout North America and make an incredible migration to the Amazon basin of Brazil for the winter.
- The Purple Martin eats insects. The Purple Martin 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 mostly eat larger prey like dragonflies, moths, mayflies, and even butterflies!
- Purple Martins are declining: Aerial insectivores (including the Purple Martin) are in serious trouble. 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 (deforestation in the Amazon), decrease in food availability, inability to adapt to climate change, nest site competition with invasive species (particularly Starlings and House Sparrows), exposure to pesticides, and industrial development projects.
- Purple Martins love humans! 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 have been in place for centuries. Purple Martin landlords take care of their birds by maintaining their house and monitoring the nests. They also help provide protection against predators such as squirrels and hawks, and keep martins safe from aggressive intruders such as Starlings and House Sparrows.
- There are three subspecies of Purple Martin. The eastern subspecies s. subis is the most widespread and nest in colonies in human-constructed bird houses throughout eastern and mid-western North America. The western subspecies, P. s. arboricola can be found west of the Rocky Mountains in California and British Columbia. They are known for nesting in natural cavities such as abandoned woodpecker holes, but are increasingly making use of nest boxes as a result of a program that began in the 1980’s to recover local populations of the species. The desert southwest of Arizona and Northern Mexico hosts a lesser known subspecies, P. s. Hesperia, that breeds in natural cavities in saguaro cacti and do not tend to form dense colonies.
Whether you have Purple Martins on your property or you’re a concerned community member, there are many opportunities for you to make a difference:
Report you colony and important information
Report your colony to the Ontario Purple Martin Association – We have partnered with the Ontario Purple Martin Association to monitor breeding success and identify sites for habitat improvement in Ontario. Report your colony.
Help Nature Canada identify important roost sites: If you have any information on possible roost sites please let us know.
Report Purple Martin sightings on EBird: This citizen science program provides important data on the location and status of these birds!
You can also report to the Purple Martin Conservation Association and while you’re at it, learn some information on other Purple Martin conservation efforts:
Offer to help a Purple Martin Landlord or consider providing crucial habitat.
The Purple Martin Conservation Association (PMCA) and the Ontario Purple Martin Association (OPMA) both have excellent resources for aspiring landlords. You can become a member to receive updates and discounts from the PMCA’s online store.
If you’re a Purple Martin landlord…
By being a Purple Martin landlord you’re already making a significant contribution towards the conservation of these birds. We know that you enjoy their company and put a considerable effort into caring from them. Here are some suggestions:
- We encourage you to mentor others (especially young people) and pass on your skills. The more people who take on this hobby, the better for the birds.
- Make sure your housing is up to date and consider important habitat improvements such as starling resistant entrances, predator guards, and installing winch systems so that your house can be lowered for monitoring and maintenance.
- Frequently monitor the birds. Conduct weekly nest checks if your martin house can be safely lowered.
- Report your colony and important information (see above)
Spread the word!
Tell others about the project and encourage them to become involved.
Connect or volunteer with Nature Canada
We love to hear from you! We also need many volunteers to help us with monitoring breeding colonies and important roost sites.
Nature Canada Tools
Blogs & Stories:
Click here for a list of Purple Martin blogs and stories written by Nature Canada volunteers and staff
Media & Articles:
Listen to our latest interview for an update on the project!
Click the links to follow other news stories on the Purple Martin Project
External Links and Resources
Hemisphere to Hemisphere Project:
Nature Canada’s Purple Martin Project is a part of a larger international initiative. Find out how Dr. Kevin Fraser and his lab are working with partners across the Americas to help the Purple Martin and related species.
Habitat supplies & Education tools:
If you’re interested in becoming a Purple Martin landlord or you would like to learn more we recommend the following websites for a wealth of information including management suggestions for landlords, Purple Martin housing standards, where to buy a house, how to build a house, and tips on attracting martins.
Please feel free to connect with us at Nature Canada:
Purple Martin Project Coordinator
Senior Conservation Manager – Bird Conservation, Education and Networks