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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Habitat in Breeding Range

In eastern North America, the nominate subspecies historically inhabited forest edge and riparian areas containing dead snags with woodpecker holes. Wooded ponds and beaver (Castor canadensis) marshes were probably often favored, but distribution was likely patchy and localized. With the conversion to nesting in birdhouses, the eastern Purple Martin is now found almost exclusively in cities, towns, or around human settlements. Birds may occupy urban environments, sometimes even nesting in downtown districts of large cities. Opportunistic within the eastern range, going wherever birdhouses may be installed, and seem not to cue on general habitat features per se. They appear, however, to avoid the higher elevations of the Appalachian Mountains (62). Range-wide species distribution models did not show strong power in predicting where colonies should occur based on habitat features (95).

In western North America, the subspecies arboricola historically inhabited montane forest and lowland oak and riparian woodland, and were restricted to areas with dead snags containing woodpecker holes; the species was generally patchy and localized in occurrence. In forested regions, habitat was mostly created through high-intensity wildfire that created nesting snags and open areas for foraging. Recently, timber harvest with snag retention in large openings has created similar habitat conditions that support nesting martins in Oregon (96, 52, 97). Niches in buildings were adopted as early as 1867 (98, 99) and were in widespread use in the Pacific states and British Columbia until about the 1970s (100), when these populations were almost entirely eliminated by competition with the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) (101, 50, 51, 52).

As recently as the 1980s, the subspecies arboricola did not make widespread use of birdhouses, but now populations in Washington and British Columbia are mostly dependent on nest boxes and gourds (50, 52), mainly in shoreline and marine environments. About half of nesting pairs in Oregon use boxes (102), and box use has only recently begun in California (103). Bridges (including elevated freeways and longer overpasses) of box-girder design are widely used in California along the central and northern coast and in Sacramento (104, 94). Populations have been eliminated from most lowland oak woodland and riparian sycamore habitats in California except in the Tehachapi Mountains of southern California (105, 106).

In the Colorado Rockies, breeds in quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) forest along edges of beaver ponds (86, 107, 108). Burned-over forest and logged areas with dead snags left standing are often used, including muskeg (bog) with abundant burned snags in Alberta (109). The birds' apparent absence from many areas in the northern Rockies, Intermountain region, California, Pacific Northwest, and Mexican highlands indicates that the species has more specific habitat requirements in these areas that are currently not well understood (95).

In the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona prior to the early 1980s, Purple Martin nested in single dead snags surrounded by pine and aspen forest but not along forest edges (CRB). They are absent from similar mountain ranges in southeastern Arizona—e.g., Rincon Mountains (31)—and disappeared from the Chiricahua Mountains by about 1987 (110, CRB), so the species may also have unknown habitat requirements in the southwestern United States. The birds travel widely and feed over many kinds of habitat, including desert scrub where they do not nest (31, CRB). Highest reported nesting in the United States is 2,770 m elevation, in the Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona (111, 30, 33) and 2,770 m at Cloudcroft, New Mexico (29); most birds in North America occur at elevations below ~2,600 m.

The subspecies hesperia is restricted mostly to saguaro forests of the Sonoran desert, but birds range over lakes, ponds, and towns adjacent to cacti while foraging or roosting. In Baja California, some nest in rock crevices in the absence of large cacti (112, 35). The subspecies hesperia uses live cottonwood (Populus) trees for roosting.

Habitat in Nonbreeding Range

Habitat in Migration

Migratory roosts are associated with forest, cropland, urban areas, and near water, although urban sites and those near water are preferred, and urban sites show greater annual persistence (113, 114). Eastern birds favor use of forest islands as stopover roost sites, and these forest patches are preferentially chosen over other available habitat, probably to avoid predators (115). The species migrates over a variety of habitats, often close to beaches (27). Many birds go directly over the Gulf of Mexico (116). In Mexico and Peru, roosts nocturnally in stands of trees in towns, often in village plazas (117, 118), under bridges, or in buildings (118). In Nicaragua, migrants are usually seen in lowland pine savanna at < 100 m elevation (119); in Panama, birds are usually observed in open, coastal areas (120). After entering South America, the birds may move to higher elevations. Occurs regularly to 3,020 m in the eastern Andes of Colombia; some birds have been recorded to 4,000 m in Venezuela, with a record from the Andes of Ecuador (121). Most South American records are in open country, often near towns.

Habitat in Overwintering Range

In southern Brazil, occupies largely savanna and agricultural areas, feeding widely during the day and flocking into large roosts in cities and towns or on forested islands at night. Roosts are often located in trees in village plazas (122). Use of cities as overwinter roost sites has apparently developed since the 1960s, perhaps because of high parasite-related mortality in less urban and more fly (Diptera)-infested areas (dipterans serve as vectors for blood parasites; 123). In northern Brazil, where many birds stage during migration and some may overwinter, species apparently forages over rainforest, clearings, agricultural and industrial areas, and cities and towns. One roost in northern Brazil was within the confines of a highly industrialized petrochemical compound, where thousands of Progne martins gathered to sleep on pipes and catwalks at the refinery (72). Recent studies using GPS loggers show that a given individual may use multiple roost locations in a season, and roost sites are often habitat islands surrounded by open water or another habitat matrix (e.g., a patch of roost trees surrounded by scrub habitat; 70).

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