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Purple Martin (Progne subis)

Purple Martin by Robert Howson
Purple Martin by Robert Howson

The Purple Martin (PUMA) is about 8” long with a wingspan of 18” and a weight of 2 oz. (56g). The genus name Progne (PROG-nee) is Latin from the Greek Prokne, daughter of Pandion and fabled to have been changed into a swallow. The species name subis (SUE-biss) is Latin for a name applied by Pliny, Roman naturalist, to a bird that breaks eagles’ eggs. Gourd Martin is another name given to the Purple Martin, especially in the South, for its habit of nesting in gourds.

The PUMA is our largest swallow. It is longer winged with slower wingbeats, long-headed and large-billed for a swallow. The adult male is all dark purple with black wings and tail. The purple areas are iridescent. Females have a gray chest, whitish belly, dull purple back, and black wings and tail. Immature females and the first fall males are like the adult female; the immature plumage is kept for one year.

Most of the Purple Martins in the east now nest in birdhouses put up for them. Providing houses for martins began with some Native American tribes who hung hollow gourds around their villages to attract these birds. It is said they encouraged PUMA nesting because the birds drove off crows from where corn and other food plants grew.

PUMAs migrate to South America for the winter, but before migrating in the late summer they sometimes gather to roost in large groups of a thousand or more. In the east this bird breeds in any kind of semi-open area where nest sites are provided, especially when near a pond or river. They are more local in the west, with isolated colonies breeding by woodland edges, clearings in mountain forest, and in lowland desert with giant saguaro cactus. In Western Washington PUMAs are fairly common and increasing as local residents of lowlands, mainly around Puget Sound and the lower Columbia River. They were originally rare in Washington state, then increased with Euro-American development until the late 1950s when European Starlings arrived and began taking over the martin nests. The Purple Martin numbers plummeted and were nearly extirpated by the early 1990s.

Many nest-box schemes have greatly aided recovery. Kevin Li was instrumental in spearheading the complete recover of Purple Martins in the Seattle and Puget Sound. These birds had been absent for about 15 years and he brought them back. He put up gourds in many areas of Seattle, especially in the Ballard Locks area and in Jack Block Park in West Seattle. He was planning to put up Purple Martin gourds in Juanita Bay this spring. Sadly, however, he died at the early age of fifty in January of this year. He will always be remembered for his efforts to support the Purple Martins. The Purple Martin photo is one of many taken by Kevin Li.

The PUMA feeds on a variety of flying insects including wasps, flying ants, bees, beetles, moths and butterflies. They forage almost entirely while on the wing and may fly low over the water or very high looking for insects.

The males return to the nesting areas early in spring and establish territories. They usually nest in colonies, particularly in the eastern areas of the U.S. Western martins may nest in looser colonies or in isolated pairs. The males may have more than one mate.

The male song is a low-pitched, rich, gurgling while the female song is a mixture of chortle calls and down-slurred whistles.

Their natural nesting sites are cavities in trees or cactus, but most now use man-made nesting boxes. There usually are 4-5 white eggs, but sometimes 3-8. Incubation is by the female for a period a 15-18 days. Both parents feed the young, which leave the nest 26-31 days after hatching.

The PUMAs are a long-distance migrant with most spending the winter in the Amazon Basin. They return very early in the spring in eastern states, often in February in the southern states, and later in spring in the west, usually April and May.


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The mission of Eastside Audubon is to protect, preserve and enhance natural ecosystems and our communities for the benefit of birds, other wildlife and people.