Purple Martin Progne subis Scientific name definitions

Charles R. Brown, Daniel A. Airola, and Scott Tarof
Version: 2.0 — Published September 10, 2021


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Breeding Range

Figure 1. Extends from central Alberta, central Saskatchewan, southern Manitoba, southeastern and extreme southwestern Ontario, extreme southern Quebec, eastern New Brunswick, and northwestern Nova Scotia south through the United States mainly east of the 102nd parallel to southern Texas, the Gulf Coast, and southern Florida (43). Distribution is patchy and local in the United States west of the 102nd parallel and east of the Cascades and Sierra Nevada (27), except in the mountains of south-central and western New Mexico (44), south-central and central Arizona (above and below the Mogollon Rim; 45), western Colorado (46), north-central Utah (47), and southwestern Oregon (Klamath County; 48. Breeds locally west of the Cascades and Sierra Nevada from extreme southwestern British Columbia (including southeastern Vancouver Island) south to extreme southwestern California (48, 49, 50, 51, 52).

In Mexico, breeds throughout most of Baja, on the Pacific slope in Sonora, and locally in the interior from northeastern Sonora, western Chihuahua, eastern Coahuila, and northern Nuevo León south to Michoacán and Guanajuato (27, 3).

In eastern North America, the Purple Martin is absent from most of Quebec except the St. Lawrence Lowlands (53), most of Ontario except southernmost portion of the Ontario Shield and the Mixedwood Plains (54), most of the Maritimes except south-central New Brunswick (55), western Maine (56), northern New Hampshire (57), all but northwestern Vermont (Lake Champlain Valley) (58), all but northeastern coastal and southeastern Massachusetts (59), higher elevations of eastern New York (60), and higher elevations from eastern West Virginia (61), south to eastern Tennessee (62).

The northern limit of the breeding range is imprecisely known. The historic northern limit of breeding for western Purple Martin (Progne subis arboricola) was at Fry Lake near the Campbell River in British Columbia (63, 52). This limit is now slowly extending northwest in Johnstone Strait with the recovery of the British Columbia population, with successful nesting at Port Neville in 2013 (B. Cousens, personal communication). The southern limit of the breeding range is also not well known, in part because of the presence of the closely related Sinaloa Martin (Progne sinaloae) in west-central Mexico (see Systematics). Both species are sympatric at Nacori Chico, Sonora (64, 27) and possibly elsewhere in the southern Mexican highlands.

Overwintering Range

Overwinters in South America in lowlands east of the Andes south to southern Brazil, rarely to northern Argentina; the main overwintering area was originally thought to be in eastern Bolivia and the provinces of southern Mato Grosso, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Espírito Santo in Brazil (65, 66, 67), although more recent studies suggest that northwestern Amazonia is the core overwintering range (68). Birds marked with ultraviolet paint in a single roost at Barretos, São Paulo province, were later found nesting in Texas, Louisiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, Kansas, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Ontario (69), indicating that birds from throughout the eastern half of North America use this overwintering area. Later studies with GPS loggers showed that eastern birds (Progne subis subis) from across the breeding range overwinter together in forested areas of Amazonia, whereas western martins (Progne subis arboricola) from British Columbia overwintered separately in the Atlantic forest of southeastern Brazil in the states of Espirito Santo, Minas Gerais, Goiás, and Matto Grosso do Sul (28, 70).

Also reported to overwinter in the Cantao region between Amazonia and Cerrado (71). Large roosts of dark-bellied Progne at Manaus in mid-March contained individual Purple Martins that were probably migrating north (72). The Amazon basin serves as a major staging area during migration (65), especially in the fall, as judged from band recoveries (73). Reported to roost at Manaus year-round (72), but dark-bellied Progne during the boreal summer may be “wintering” Southern Martin (Progne elegans) from farther south; the status of the Purple Martin in Amazonia in the middle of the boreal winter needs clarification. Although Phillips (27) doubted reports of Purple Martin overwintering north of Amazonia (e.g., 74, 43), regular surveys of a large multi-species Progne roost in coastal Suriname recorded >30, >35, and >20 individuals per survey on 12 December, 27 December, and 18 January, respectively (75). Early-winter records in the southern United States, mostly along the Gulf Coast on Christmas Bird Counts (CBC), could be either late fall migrants or early spring migrants. The overwintering range of the western subspecies hesperia is unknown.

On the basis of records in Colombia, Guyana, Suriname, Brazil, and Argentina from 2 July to 31 August, some believe that Purple Martins occasionally spend the boreal summer in South America (66, 76). Paynter (76) suggested that the species might breed in South America. In the absence of any June records, however, July and August birds are best regarded as early fall migrants.

Other Records

North of the breeding range, nonbreeders have been reported in the Pribilof Islands, Alaska (e.g., 5 records during June and July on St. Paul Island; eBird), western and northern Alaska, northern Yukon (77), northwestern Ontario, and northern Nova Scotia (43). Accidental in the British Isles on at least 3 occasions since 2004 (78), possibly owing to hurricane displacement. Some additional records in the United Kingdom from 1839–1878, while long doubted as reflecting natural movement, may in fact be valid (79). In the Azores, there are reports of 2 birds in September 1996 on Corvo Island (80), and a single bird on 6 September 2004 on Flores Island (81). Very rare in Galapagos Islands, with most records in Fall (especially November), fewer in spring (eBird). On Clipperton Island, 4 birds were present (2 collected, Los Angeles County Museum 35325, 35326) in August 1958 (eBird). Accidental in Chukotka in northeastern Russia (82).

Historical Changes to the Distribution

Weather-related mortality periodically eliminates birds along the northern edge of the range, but these areas are usually reoccupied by at least a few individuals within several years. Overall the northern limit of breeding in Canada has shifted southward in the 1900s. For example, in Ontario, between the early 1980s and early 2000s, the species withdrew from Lake Temagami, Thunder Bay, and Dryden, to near Saul Saint Marie and North Bay (54), and it was formerly reported for the Northwest Territories, but is no longer found there (83). The northern breeding range limit of P. s. arboricola in British Columbia temporarily contracted southward from near the Campbell River to Cowichan Bay, Victoria on southeastern Vancouver Island as a result of a severe population decline in the mid to late 1900s, but subsequent population recovery (mediated through provisioning of nest boxes) has extended breeding to slightly north of the historical limit (52). Installation of birdhouses in the middle and western Great Plains may have permitted a slight range expansion westward in recent years, e.g., in northwestern Texas (84), eastern New Mexico, the Oklahoma panhandle, eastern Colorado (85), and western Nebraska (CRB). Recent discoveries of Purple Martins nesting in localities previously unknown in the Rockies and Intermountain West (e.g., 86, 87, 88, 89) probably reflect only this species' overall rarity in the region and the difficulty of finding it in backcountry areas, and probably do not indicate a major range expansion. The population in California has declined substantially following the arrival of the European Starling, with the Purple Martin being eliminated as a breeder from large areas of southern California and the Central Valley (90, 91, 51). Apparent extirpation of the long-established population in the Lava Beds National Monument (92) and a dramatic decline of the last Central Valley colonies (93, 94) suggest that additional range contraction may be underway.

Distribution of the Purple Martin
  • Year-round
  • Migration
  • Breeding
  • Non-Breeding
Distribution of the Purple Martin
Purple Martin, Abundance map
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Data provided by eBird

Purple Martin

Progne subis


Relative abundance is depicted for each season along a color gradient from a light color indicating lower relative abundance to a dark color indicating a higher relative abundance. Relative abundance is the estimated average count of individuals detected by an eBirder during a 1 hour, 1 kilometer traveling checklist at the optimal time of day for each species.   Learn more about this data

Relative abundance
Breeding season
May 17 - Jun 21
Non-breeding season
Nov 9 - Dec 28
Pre-breeding migratory season
Jan 4 - May 10
Post-breeding migratory season
Jun 28 - Nov 2
Note: Seasonal ranges overlap and are stacked in the order above; view full range in season maps.
Seasons timeline
Learn more about seasons

Recommended Citation

Brown, C. R., D. A. Airola, and S. Tarof (2021). Purple Martin (Progne subis), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.purmar.02