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Contributed Courtesy of Scott Nelson

A Brief History of the Purple Martin

Twelve thousand years ago, before the first human beings arrived in the New World over the Bering Land Bridge, Purple Martins were a dramatically  different bird than they are today. Back then, martins nested only in the abandoned nesting chambers of woodpeckers, or in the other natural cavities they could find in dead trees or in cliffs. Today, east of the Rockies, martins nest only in human-supplied housing; either in elaborate bird house  condominiums known as "martin houses," or in natural or artificial gourds.

Why did Purple Martins stop nesting in their ancestral ways? Perhaps by accident Native American Indians discovered that martins could be lured into their villages by hanging up gourds with holes cut in their sides. (actually, the Indians cut square holes rather than round holes)

Over hundreds and perhaps thousands of bird generations martins gradually gave up their ancestral ways in a process now known as a "behavioral tradition shift." Here's how the tradition shift may have occurred: First, a pair of martins probably tried nesting in a long-handled dipper gourd hung near a pond by natives as a drinking utensil. When the Indians discovered this curiosity, they may have been amused and started hanging other gourds for martins around their campsites.

Because they were nesting near humans (where predators are scarcer) and nesting in chambers far larger than woodpecker cavities, these martins  were able to lay more eggs and successfully raise more young to fledging age than martins nesting in natural cavities. It would have been adaptive for  the surviving young from these gourd nests to seek them out for nesting sites when they became breeders the following year. Concurrently, the Indians may have discovered other benefits, uses, and pleasures from having martins nesting in their company. For instance, documents from the 18th and 19th centuries suggest that these early Americans attracted martins to their villages because they functioned like scarecrows, chasing crows away from their corn patches, and vultures away from their meats and hides hung out to dry. Additionally, they consumed huge numbers of insects, fie. flies, mosquitoes and other annoying bugs draw to the rubbish/human waste areas around the village. The mutually-beneficial relationship established then, still exists today.

It's fun to speculate what additional benefits these Native Americans may have derived from their custom of  martin attraction. Perhaps martins were like alarm clocks, since they begin singing so early and regularly in the morning. Maybe they were like both radios and televisions, since they continually sing such pleasant songs and their behaviors are so entertaining to watch. They certainly would have been  like calendars, since every phase of their annual cycle (from arrival, territory establishment, nest-building, egg-laying, hatching, fledging, and departure) is done on a regular and predictable schedule. They may have been like watchdogs, since they are notorious for giving alarm calls when predators or strangers approach.

There is also evidence suggesting that Native Americans may have used the pulverized bodies of  martins as moth balls to protect their furs from the ravages of insect vermin during summer storage.

Perhaps for some (or all) of these reasons a cultural tradition began and other native tribes took up the habit of hanging gourds for martins. Gradually, over time, more and more martins chose gourds for nesting, and fewer and fewer chose natural cavities.

When the European colonists arrived in the new world they too adopted the Indian custom of hanging gourds for Purple Martins, but they also supplemented them with ceramic gourds and wooden martin houses. Eventually, by the early 20th century, the entire eastern race of Purple Martins nested only in human-supplied housing, and the tradition shift was complete.

Today, east of the Rockies, Purple Martins are the only bird species totally dependent on humans for  supplying them with nesting sites. And they have been managed by man longer than any other North American species.

If humans were to stop supplying martins with homes, they would likely disappear as a breeding bird in eastern North America.

So you gourder's keep growing gourds, and hanging them up for our purple friends.  I can't think of a better use for gourds, can you?

- Scott Nelson

Most of this information was gleaned from the Purple Martin Conservation Association.


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