What’s Up With the Martins?

Purple Martin

Purple Martin, Progne subis

The last of April and early May were remarkable for the cold, wet weather here in Maryland and throughout the Mid-Atlantic.  I heard we had 14 straight days of measurable rain and the thermometer was clearly forgetting that the spring equinox was six weeks ago.  As we pulled into our rural road, returning from a hot supper out, there was a good-sized flock of Purple Martins, maybe 25 or 30, blocking our way.  As I slowed down surprisingly only a few flew away and even those birds quickly landed a short distance further down the road as if to claim it for themselves.  I ran an obstacle course through them trying hard to straddle as many as possible.  What was going on?  These were not the usual energetic, swooping, and vocal swallows one usually sees each spring.  The next morning the martins were still on the road, but now there were several squashed bodies of those that had refused to yield to traffic.  This went on for several days and the body count mounted until the survivors finally disappeared.

Purple Martin

Martin roadblock; note the droopy tail and wings

About this same time I was at a party where friends of mine recounted another episode of strange martin behavior occurring about the same time in the cold and drizzle.  This couple are bird lovers and astute observers of the flora and fauna in their yard. They noticed a martin with unusually droopy wings perched on the porch of their Purple Martin house.  He flew away when they investigated with a ladder but one of the apartments was jammed with five other stuporous martins.  The entry to another apartment was blocked by a dead bird, and when he was removed another five birds flew out the now open door.  What’s going on?

Purple Martin


As you probably know Purple Martins are long distance migrants. The older scouts first arrive in the Chesapeake region in the second half of March, seeking their prior year’s nesting site.  The younger birds make the long trip from South America up to four weeks later.  The martins are the largest New World swallows and the only swallows displaying sexual dimorphism–the sexes look different. The eastern subspecies has the unusual trait of almost entirely depending upon man-made cavities for nesting.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands of years ago Native Americans in the east started hanging hollowed-out gourds to attract the sociable martins.  European settlers noticed this and expanded the practice which we continue today.  After thousands of generations of birds using these man-made nesting sites the eastern martins have essentially abandoned the use of natural cavities.

Purple Martin

Click on any photo to zoom

The concept of long distant and massive bird migrations has not always been known.  This makes sense since until the end of the 15th century we weren’t even aware of the distant continents themselves.  There was a general idea that the disappearing fall birds were hibernating somewhere, just like the frogs, turtles, and some mammals.  I’ve read old accounts of torpid spring martins that were assumed to be waking up from their winter’s sleep and wonder if they were describing the same behavior of our martins last month.

Purple Martin

Progne subis

So here’s my theory of what’s going on with the martins.  They are tough birds but after a two thousand mile migration their body weight is significantly reduced and the birds are vulnerable.  The ill-timed cold snap and rains greeted them in their already weakened state making it difficult to fly, or even avoid an oncoming car.  Martins usually forage during flight, but if they are too weak to fly hunger will compound their plight.  Possibly the flying insects they feed on were also in short supply due to the inclement weather.  I’ll bet they were huddled in the apartment and on the dark road in a last desperate search for warmth.  In the open they were clearly easy prey for predator hawks as well as the squashing cars.

Let me know if you’ve noticed similar behavior or if you have any additional thoughts.  It may well be a tough breeding year or two for the martins, at least in our neck of the woods.

20 thoughts on “What’s Up With the Martins?

    1. If you have a little bit of open space and a nearby pond you can try a martin house on a pole. Put it up in late winter and see what develops. If a colony moves in they are very entertaining to watch. Thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. The first photo is stunning. We seldom get to see such detail in flight. I was so saddened to read your story. Heartbreaking to read. I’ve only seen purple martins once — a memorable experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Further to the pm saga this year on the Eastern Shore of Md., after finding multiple dead birds in our pm house, the survivors and newly arriving sub adults have repopulated the house, and several adult pairs are actively building nests. Assuming that the weather stays warm, unlike last year when we had an abnormally cool June right at the time of incubation and hatching, we are hoping that we’ll see a good fledging of young.

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  3. That first shot in flight is spectacular. They are hard to capture by camera too. That is a sad story. I am assuming like you the birds were seeking heat and where near starvation not finding insects. I have not seen that here but your area is far south of us and the martins arrive later. I am with my bird group on Saturday and will ask if any of them have seen this behavior. I really don’t like hearing of squashed birds.

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  4. Just came back from an overnight golf trip to Lake Erie. Golf course had the tradition Martin Birdhouses and also gourds on poles. Martins were using both and got some good photos with my Iphone. Love your photos.

    Liked by 1 person

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