In the 1950s, a bird enthusiast and TV antennae factory owner in Griggsville, Illinois came up with the idea of building and selling houses for purple martins.
J.L. Wade promoted his all-aluminum houses and stated that the purple martin was America’s favorite bird because it consumed thousands of mosquitoes every day. The advertising campaign worked, and thousands of his houses were purchased and installed by landowners weary of being bitten by annoying insects. In virtually every state east of the Mississippi, you can still see many of his green and white houses in yards and on farms. Unfortunately, many today are in unusable condition and have long since been abandoned.
The story of people and martins began long before Mr. Wade. When the first settlers entered Native American villages to trade, they observed gourds with holes mounted on top of tall poles. Birds similar to the house martins they knew in Europe were seen going in and out of the gourds. They learned that these semi-domesticated birds would drive away crows, hawks and other birds that would peck at drying hides, thus making them less valuable. They also found that the biting insect populations were greatly reduced because of the birds’ diet. As a result, it caught on with homesteaders, farmers and innkeepers who began installing bird houses.
Through interactions with humans over time, martins have adopted human-erected housing as their only choice of where to live and nest. They no longer use hollow trees or rocky crags as a place to nest and raise young. They are the only North American songbird to exhibit this behavior.
When the fad of martin housing diminished and suitable habitat lessened, the purple martin population dropped. Fortunately, many people recognized the situation and became interested again in being martin landlords. With new and better housing options, thousands of colonies have sprung up across the U.S. and Canada.
In Virginia, Izaak Walton member and County Naturalist Mike Bishop began a program to bring martins back to the heavily populated and developed Fairfax County where he resides. Bishop began his martin journey in the early 1980s by putting bluebird and martin houses on his parents’ property in rural Spotsylvania County, Virginia. For almost 25 years, three colonies grew and remained successful.
In 2010, the property was sold, and he no longer had access to the houses. At the time, he was working at a large high school with a lot of open ground. He received permission to put up a martin house, although he had never seen any martins there. Within two years, the house was filled with birds that gave him another idea. That was to put up more houses in county parks and near schools.
Despite 1.1 million people living in Fairfax County in an urban area, open spaces of parks and golf courses provided the perfect habitat for these birds that don’t mind being close to human activities. Bishop contacted county officials who supported the proposal, and he recruited others to help. In 2015, he gave his effort the name Northern Virginia Purple Martin Initiative and began selecting sites to install colonies. By the end of the second year, 13 colonies were installed and, while most had some birds, others were already at capacity.
Currently there are 25 active colonies in parks, at golf courses, and even several at a university and a monastery. There are more than 350 gourds and housing compartments available to the birds, and the average occupancy was 95% for the 2021 season. That equates to approximately 1,500 new purple martins fledged.
Bishop has been involved in overseeing many new conservation projects at the Arlington-Fairfax Izaak Walton Chapter where he has been a member for several years. One of his first projects there was to erect a martin colony. Open grounds combined with a nearby several-acre pond provide the perfect habitat.
The purple martins, because they are colonial, are an interesting bird to watch. Their behaviors and antics are enjoyable, and boosting their population rids the area of annoying insects. As spring arrives, martins will return from South America and begin their cycle of establishing a new generation, thanks to the support of concerned conservationists.
2021 purple martin nesting results of the Northern Virginia Purple Martin Initiative:
Fairfax County Parks:
- 23 colonies
- 264 gourds with 225 used
- 85% occupancy
- 900-1125 martins fledged
The 23 colonies are at Sully Woodlands, Burke Lake Park, Oak Marr Golf Course, Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, Twin Lakes Golf Course, Cub Run Rec Center, and Rock Hill Park.
If you are interested in becoming a martin landlord, the Purple Martin Conservation Association (purplemartin.org) has a website with useful information on martins and establishing a colony of your own. There is a list of mentors in your area who are glad to answer questions.