Backyard Nature Wednesday: The martins are here

Purple Martins are among the earliest spring migrants to return to our area each year, normally arriving in late January or early February. They were reported in the area on schedule this year, but I had not seen or heard any over my yard until this week. 

On Monday, while working in the garden, I heard that familiar liquid, warbling call overhead and looked up to see three of the birds circling over my backyard. Since then I've seen and heard them every day - old friends back again.  

That familiar shape was a welcome sight. Martins really are one of my favorite summer visitors.
For several years, we hosted an active colony of the birds in our backyard every summer. We had put up a couple of martin mansions for their nesting and summer habitation, and I waited impatiently every year to see when the first bird would return. All summer long I enjoyed their circling flights overhead. Their voices were the music of the season for me. Unfortunately, all of that came to an end a few years ago.

It was the same story that has happened in all too many places to all too many native birds. Our martin houses were invaded by non-native House Sparrows and European Starlings. We found ourselves in a constant battle with those aggressive birds to try to give the martins an opportunity to nest. But the martins were being pushed out and we finally had to acknowledge defeat. Sadly, we took down our martin houses rather than provide nesting places for the sparrows and starlings. In the last year that we had the houses up, we had only one successful nesting by a pair of Purple Martins.

Still, some of our neighbors do have houses open for tenancy by the birds and so, even though we ourselves are no longer landlords, we get to enjoy the birds as they circle over our yard, always looking for more insects. I like to think that some of these birds are descendants of ones that we hosted in the past.

A pair of martins resting on a house like the ones we used to provide.


  1. It seems I have encountered martins and martin houses in novels over the years but not in real life. But yesterday I saw a robin on my back hill. We don't have lots of robins, only a few in So Cal. I wonder why. If anyone would know, I figure it would be you!

    1. Birds generally stick to their ancestral ranges, although those ranges are now expanding and changing due to climate change, so you may see more robins in the future. Purple Martins in the eastern part of the country are entirely dependent on housing provided for them by humans - a tradition started by the Native Americans who lived here. In the West, martins generally still nest in natural cavities in dead trees or other such places.


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