The people's voice of reason

Tears & Laughter: Waiting and Watching for Purple Martins

Even before daybreak, you can hear them singing their happy sounding songs from inside their swinging gourds. The purple martin song. It will soon be their season. They return every year from their winter homes in South America to raise their young. They fly the same instinctual path across the Gulf of Mexico. The first scouts start arriving in south Alabama in late January and early February.

Those who consider themselves landlord’s of the purple martin, are already watching the afternoon skies.

It is a tradition between humans and birds that started with Native Americans. They discovered – perhaps by accident – that purple martins would nest in gourds they would hang from the bare branches of young trees.

Back then purple martins would also nest in hollowed out tree holes and rock crevices, but years later a New York businessman thought it would be a clever idea to bring every bird ever mentioned by Shakespeare to the United States. In Henry IV, Part One, the starling is mentioned, and in 1890, a hundred starling were released in Central Park. It was unknown at the time, but the starling is an invasive species. They are also an enemy of the purple martin. They nest in the same habitats. Starlings are aggressive and will kill baby martins. They will fight adult birds. Over time this caused martins to become fully dependent upon humans to provide their nests.

Purple martins seem to like people as much as people enjoy having them. Being near houses keeps them safer from predators like snakes and hawks. Colonies will even locate in the middle of towns or business districts. And for some people, being near purple martins just seems to keep them happy. It wouldn’t sound like spring without them.

Purple martin people don’t mind the work it takes to keep gourds and houses in the air for the birds. Like being a landlord of property, purple martin landlord’s have to keep the birdhouses and gourds maintained. Gourds have to be taken down after each season. Old nesting material has to be removed and they have to be washed with a bleach solution. Some people keep their gourds freshly painted white. White gourds will be a touch cooler than natural gourds and houses are said to be even cooler than white gourds. The birds return to the same colony they were raised, often the same gourd.

People who love them welcome them. They watch and wait for their arrival this time of year. There is a competition within this subculture to see who can be the first to spot the first scouts of the season. But that is the only competition, and even it is friendly. People who grow gourds and love martins will often give gourds or seeds to anyone willing to put up a pole. They know that if there ever comes a time when people stop going to the effort to put up and maintain gourds, there will come a time when purple martins cease to be.

Purple martins like wide open spaces. They spend their days soaring and darting, collecting insects within their wings. And in the evening, after the sun has set, they return to their nests. Landlord’s wait in the afternoons to watch this daily event. To hear the purple martin song.

By late summer, just as suddenly they appeared, they will be gone. In their absence there is stillness. There is silence where there used to be song. And the only thing that keeps a heart from breaking, is the assurance of their certain return.

Amanda Walker is a columnist and contributor with, The Birmingham News, Selma Times Journal, Thomasville Times, West Alabama Watchman, and Alabama Gazette. Contact her at or at


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