Purple Martin Progne subis Scientific name definitions

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

Sounds and Vocal Behavior

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Young begin faint vocalization at hatching (20). Juvenile call (33) develops as young grow and is fully developed at least by day 24. Structure suggests that the Juvenile call becomes the multipurpose Cher call of the adult. No information on the degree of call similarity among siblings or among birds from different broods. A bird taken as a nestling and reared in isolation from other martins gave a subsong that resembled that of a Purple Martin (192). The same bird, however, imitated other species in its Dawn song, illustrating some song-learning. Juveniles apparently do not begin singing before departing from North America; no information on when juveniles begin using Zweet (Alarm) call. During their first breeding season, yearling males give a full Croak song, largely indistinguishable from those of adult males.

Vocal Array

Eleven vocalizations described, 10 by Brown (33) and the Dawn song by Morton (192).

Juvenile call. Used by juveniles in the nest and immediately after fledging in soliciting food from parents.

Choo call. Used by adult females in leading fledged broods.

Zwrack call and Zweet call. Used in alarm situations or to indicate a high level of excitement during intraspecific interactions.

Hee-Hee call. Used during territorial fighting.

Cher call and Chortle call. Multipurpose vocalizations used in many contexts, including as components of songs.

Croak song. Used by the male primarily in courtship. Croak song of eastern birds has characteristic terminal series of gratings or clicks, whereas that of Arizona birds has gratings interspersed throughout (33).

Chortle song. Used by the female primarily in courtship. Chortle song of birds in Arizona contains more down-slurred notes than those of Texas birds (33).

Subsong. Used by males after breeding.

Dawn song. Used in early morning (before daylight), perhaps to attract conspecifics. Does not contain the terminal gratings of Croak song in eastern birds and is the loudest vocalization given by this species.

Structure and sonograms of each call are presented in Brown (33) and Morton (192). Geographic variation (with eastern populations differing from the western montane birds) exists in structure (but not contexts used) of Zweet call, Chortle call, Croak song, and Chortle song (33). Vocalizations of montane-nesting martins in the Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona, in 1980 were qualitatively identical to those of Progne subis hesperia in lowland saguaro forests (CRB), despite different subspecific designations (see Systematics: Subspecies). Repertoire size of calls is apparently similar among populations.


Juvenile call is used only until juveniles become independent of their parents; then the call apparently transforms to the Cher call. Zweet, Cher, and Chortle calls are used throughout the breeding season and probably throughout the year. Zwrack call is used mostly while the young are still in the nest, although occasionally during fights with nest-site competitors earlier in the breeding season. Choo call is used only when juveniles are still dependent on their parents for food. Hee-Hee call and Croak, Chortle, and Dawn songs are used primarily while birds are courting and attracting mates. Subsong is used only at end of breeding season after young have fledged.

Daily Pattern of Vocalizing

Time of day has little influence on use of Juvenile, Choo, Zwrack, Zweet, Hee-Hee, Cher, and Chortle calls, and Subsong; individuals give these vocalizations at all times during daylight hours as circumstances dictate. Croak and Chortle songs are given at all times of the day, and frequently during predawn hours while still inside nest cavities (33). Dawn song is heard only in the predawn hours (192).

Places of Vocalizing

Young birds give the Juvenile call while inside nests and while flying or perched at the brood assembly sites after fledging (see Breeding: fledgling stage). Choo call is usually given in flight near a brood. Zwrack call is given in flight while diving at predators or at nest-site competitors. Zweet and Cher calls and Croak song are given in flight and while perched at or near a nest. Hee-Hee and Chortle calls, Chortle song, and Subsong are given usually while perched in or near the nest. Dawn song is given only by males circling high over nest sites and rarely by males perching on birdhouses.

Repertoire and Delivery of Songs

Little information on song variation among individuals. Each male has both Croak and Dawn songs, and the cadence and note structure of the latter vary in an individually distinctive way among birds (192). While giving the Croak song, males often flip their wings and tail, open their beak wide, and expose a patch of bare skin on the throat.

Social Context and Presumed Functions of Vocalizations

Juvenile call. Probably reflects food needs of chicks and also assists parents in finding juveniles during fledging and in brood assembly areas. No evidence that it is used in parent-offspring recognition (193), although incidence of calling increases when parents (and nonparental adults) appear.

Choo call. Used by female parents in leading juveniles between a nest-site and assembly areas (see Breeding: Fledgling Stage) and occasionally in leading juveniles on apparent foraging flights. Series of Choo calls are used only when parents are actively leading juveniles and do not occur in any other context (33).

Zwrack call. High-intensity alarm call, given singly at the end of a dive at a predator or at a nest-site competitor, usually as the vocalizer brushes closest to an intruder. It is used only when a predator or a competitor approaches an active nest close enough to elicit high-risk diving (194).

Zweet call. The primary alarm call, usually given repeatedly. It is given in both high- and low-intensity alarm situations, including instances in which predators pass nearby without attempting predation. Mated males sometimes give the Zweet call in the absence of a predator when excited, as when a female intruder visits their territory, when they see other males attempt copulation with their mate, and during fights, apparently when attempting to escape from the victor (33). Birds always seem to respond appropriately in a given circumstance, despite different contexts in which structurally similar Zweet calls are used. Birds in Texas give a long series of generally up-slurred Zweet calls in no detectable pattern, whereas Arizona birds frequently give them in a characteristic 3-note arrangement in which each syllable is conspicuously down-slurred (33).

Hee-Hee call. Given primarily by males during intense territorial fighting (which is relatively rare; see Behavior: Agonistic Behavior), indicating extreme excitement and aggressive intent.

Cher call. Given by both sexes in any situation, including alarm responses and times of apparent contentment (33). Usually accompanied by noticeable flips or shakes of body and wings; this vocalization may help members of a pair or neighboring birds in a colony to recognize each other. Cher calls are used often early in the morning when birds still in their nest cavities vocalize extensively.

Chortle call. Used in many situations, often immediately before Croak and Chortle songs are given. May indicate slightly higher level of excitement than the Cher call (33).

Croak song. Male's primary courtship signal, given frequently while trying to attract mates and often directed at a mate throughout egg-laying (33). Always given in the presence of a female, and the male clearly orients toward her when singing. Croak songs are commonly given in predawn hours while birds are still inside the nest cavities. Since this song is not used at all in intrasexual interactions among males, it is likely an intersexually selected trait; females possibly use song characteristics to select mates and/or extra-pair copulation partners (see Behavior: sexual behavior).

Chortle song. Given by females, usually during interactions with males, such as when members of a pair rejoin after being separated. Seems to indicate excitement by the female, since it is also used when other females intrude on a territory.

Subsong. Modified Croak song used only late in the breeding season by males as birds begin fledging young and gathering in pre-migratory roosts. It is used in various contexts, and is not restricted to sexual situations (33); it may reflect, like post-breeding nest-cavity defense (195), late-summer gonadal recrudescence.

Dawn song. Given in predawn hours by males that range widely around the nest sites; it is distinct from the Croak song used during daylight hours (192). It is believed to attract other (especially yearling) martins to a nest site, enhancing colony formation and thereby providing opportunities for extrapair copulations (196, 197).

Nonvocal Sounds

Males sometimes snap the upper and lower mandibles together, making a clicking sound, during courtship (CRB).

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