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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Geographic Variation

Across eastern North America neither body size nor plumage color varies to a great extent, but in western North America body size varies considerably. Birds in the Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest average larger than birds in the East and are markedly larger than birds in the arid Southwest and northwestern Mexico (22; see Table 1). Size has been reported to vary clinally, with decreasing size southward along the Pacific Coast (23), but martins from central California and Puget Sound in Washington show no significant size differences (S. Kostka, personal communication; DAA). Dorsal color is similar in adult males and adult females in eastern populations, while western females are duller and more brownish on the back than females of the eastern subspecies. Females in the West are whiter ventrally and on the forehead and the nape than are females in the East. Johnston (24) hypothesized that the whiter color of desert birds is an adaptation to arid climate—i.e., the species follows Gloger's rule—but it would seem that climate alone does not explain the equally pale coloration of the more northerly montane populations in the West. The dark, glossy coloration of adult males was postulated to be under intense sexual selection (24), but experimental plumage manipulations showed no advantage to darker blue plumage in competition among males (25). The plumage of first-year males tends to resemble that of females more so in the West than in the East, although differences are slight (12).

Genetic diversity, assessed using haplotypes and nucleotides, is considered high in western Purple Martin populations, particularly in British Columbia. DNA sequencing of 214 birds from 15 western and 9 eastern populations revealed 47 genetic haplotypes (34 western, 12 eastern, 1 shared; 26). Mixing of eastern and western subspecies' populations is minimal but does occur, and immigration and emigration among western subpopulations is relatively common.


Three subspecies, following Phillips (27). Habitat use differs markedly among the subspecies, with subis nesting almost entirely in human-supplied nest boxes, hesperia nesting almost entirely in saguaro cacti, and arboricola nesting in a wider range of sites including snags, nest boxes, bridges, utility structures, and formerly buildings (see Habitat in Breeding Range). The subspecies also differ in size, plumage, and geographic range; the subspecific identity of some populations, such as in Mexico requires further research (see below). Overwintering ranges of the subspecies are largely unknown, with the exception of recent evidence that some breeders from northeastern North America overwinter in Amazonia and Pacific Northwest birds overwinter in the Atlantic rainforest of southeastern Brazil (28).


Purple Martin (subis/arboricola) Progne subis subis/arboricola


Progne subis subis Scientific name definitions

Systematics History

Progne subis subis (Linnaeus, 1758) [type locality = Hudson Bay, Canada]. Includes Hirundo purpurea Linnaeus, 1766; Hirundo violacea Gmelin, 1788; Hirundo caerulea Vieillot, 1807; Hirundo versicolor Vieillot, 1817; Hirundo ludoviciana Cuvier, 1817; and Progne subis floridana Mearns, 1902. Although originally designated as Progne subis arboricola (22), montane birds in the “sky islands” of southwestern New Mexico and southern Arizona have been classified by some authors as Progne subis subis (29, 30, 31). Other authors, however, have described martins from these regions as being intermediate in many respects (5, 32). For example, wing and tail length of 22 specimens from the Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona, and Catron County, New Mexico, are too small for Progne subis arboricola (CRB); however, vocalizations of these birds are identical to those Progne subis hesperia, and differ from those of Progne subis subis (33). Notably, however, no comparison of vocalizations between Progne subis arboricola and Progne subis subis has been published.


Breeds across eastern North America from southern Canada south to southeastern United States, west to the eastern base of the Rocky Mountains and south, locally, to Mexico's transvolcanic belt. However, breeding distribution not fully understood in Mexico (see Systematics History for subspecies subis). Overwinters in South America, apparently mainly in the Amazon (28).


Female more dusky ventrally, with lower ventrum less white and often obscured by slight wash of tan (22), though on some females (older ones?) the entire ventrum is dark brown or dark gray, and body size is intermediate.


Progne subis arboricola Scientific name definitions

Systematics History

Progne subis arboricola Behle, 1968 [type locality = north-central Utah (near Payson), United States]. See Systematics History for subspecies subis, above.


Breeds throughout the Rocky Mountains, Great Basin Ranges, montane areas of Arizona and New Mexico (at least formerly) south to the Chiricahua Mountains, and Pacific Northwest from southern coastal British Columbia south through California and probably into forested mountains of northern Baja California. A few tracked birds overwintered in northwestern Brazil (28).


Similar to Progne subis subis, but female whiter below and on forehead as in Progne subis hesperia; body size larger (wing chord: male > 146 mm, female > 141 mm) than both P. s. subis and hesperia (22).


Purple Martin (hesperia) Progne subis hesperia Scientific name definitions

Systematics History

Progne subis hesperia Brewster, 1889 [type locality = Sierra de la Laguna, Baja California Sur, Mexico] (34). Includes Progne subis oberholseri Brandt, 1951. This subspecies possibly occurs south to extreme northern Sinaloa and on islands in Gulf of California (35, 27), and birds on the Pacific slope north of the central Baja California peninsula (north of 31°N latitude) have been ascribed to Progne subis hesperia, but this attribution has been questioned (23, 36, 27).


Breeds in deserts of southern Baja California peninsula and southern Arizona south to at least south-central Sonora, though distribution not fully understood (see Systematics History for subspecies hesperia). Likely overwinters in South America.


Like Progne subis arboricola, but body size small (wing chord: male < 146 mm, female < 141 mm) (22).

Related Species

Monophyly of Hirundinidae, the swallows and martins, has never been questioned, but relationships within Hirundininae—a subfamily that includes all but the two species of river martins (Pseudochelidoninae)—have been difficult to tease apart. Early molecular work, in this case with DNA–DNA hybridization, suggested that the subfamily was split along ecological lines: three major clades were said to correlate with whether the nest was excavated, built of mud, or placed in a cavity (37). Additional genetic work has not supported so clean an ecological break, but it has become increasing clear that the genus Progne is in a broad clade that includes Tachycineta (tree swallows), Stelgidopteryx (rough-winged swallows), Riparia (sand martins), and various genera endemic to the New World that may have arisen in and radiated from the Andes (38), with Progne appearing to be sister to Stelgidopteryx within this clade (39). The subfamily's other major clade contains the genera Hirundo (barn swallows), Cecropis (red-rumped swallows), and Petrochelidon (cliff swallows), among others (39).

Most of the 9 or so species in the genus Progne resemble one another closely in morphology, behavior, and ecology, with Progne elegans (the Southern Martin of South America), Progne sinaloae (the Sinaloa Martin of western Mexico), Progne dominicensis (the Caribbean Martin of Jamaica, Hispaniola, the Lesser Antilles, and Tobago), Progne cryptoleuca (the Cuban Martin of Cuba and the Isle of Pines), Progne chalybea (the Gray-breasted Martin of much of the Neotropics), and Progne subis being especially similar. Among these species, Progne subis appears sister to a clade that contains an amalgam of each of the other 5 species (40). Progne subis might be particularly closely related to Progne sinaloae given the existence of several putative hybrids between them (41, 42), though in a molecular phylogeny, Progne sinaloae appears to be sister to northern Progne chalybea populations (40).

Fossil History

No information.

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