On The Wild Side: Purple Martins an exciting sight to see close to Lake Ontario

Ann Brokelman took the photo above of Purple Martins in their house near Lake Ontario. Photo above shows Ann's granddaughter Lara looking at the birdhouse. Photos by Ann Brokelman.


What a great month May was for bird watching! Some of my favourite birds, such as Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, Red-headed woodpeckers, flycatchers, and swallows, have all migrated back into town.

Also, a personal perennial thrill is the arrival of all the spring babies, especially the ones that I find in my own backyard. This year, so far, I’ve seen a few new ones and some old favourites.

I’ve got a nest of house wrens for the first time, which has been fascinating to say the least, and a family of eastern grey squirrels has set up shop in my owl box. Of course, I’d rather have the owls back, but I’m glad someone is making use of the real estate. The four baby squirrels have already given me a few hours of fun, as I’ve watched them climb out of the box and slide down the ladder my husband built for them (the little ones wouldn’t be able to climb the pole and back into the nest otherwise). My mourning doves have also come back, for the fourth year in a row, and are nesting in the same spot in my front tree. Why mess with a good thing?

Another new sighting came when I was out walking, not too far from my house, down by Lake Ontario. A flash of deep purple drew my eye to a few birds flying over the water. When they landed in a nearby tree, I was able to get a better look, and that’s when I realized they were Purple Martins. I was excited by this, as I don’t see them too often, but my excitement rose a few notches when I realized they had claimed a nesting box nearby! I knew I’d be coming back to this spot to watch for chicks.

The next paragraph of this article was written by my granddaughter Lara (10), who came birding with me a few days later:

“When I saw the birds with my Oma, I was pretty excited because I got to learn about Purple Martins and see them for the first time. When we arrived, a few were skimming across the water as we got out of the car. I learned they do this because it’s an easy way for them to catch insects. As we got to their birdhouse, we saw multiple male and female Martins, some standing, some flying, and some poking their heads out of the box. It was pretty cute. I like that they use the houses we build for them.”

Purple Martins, (Progne Subis), are the largest member of the North American swallow family and are aerial insectivores, which means that they exclusively feed on flying insects.

Interestingly, when there isn’t a lot of light they lack colour, but in the sunshine, they appear to be bright blue, navy blue, or deep purple. This is caused by a refraction of light that I don’t fully understand, but I know also applies to Blue Jays (who aren’t actually blue).

You’ve probably heard a Purple Martin at some point; their various calls are described as “throaty and rich” and can be rendered as tchew-wew, pew pew, choo, cher, zweet and zwrack. The males have a gurgling and guttural courtship song, a dawn song, and even a subsong used at the end of the breeding season. While standing by the tree, I could hear them vocalizing to each other.

As I was reading up on them, later that night, I learned that their populations are dropping quickly, but the experts aren’t sure why.

And one last, but quite interesting, detail I picked up online from the Nature Canada website: “East of the Rockies, Purple Martins rely exclusively on human-provided housing to nest in during their breeding seasons. This relationship is often attributed to the Indigenous Peoples of North America who hung hollowed-out gourds on top of poles to attract Purple Martin to nest in.” (Naturecanada.ca)

If you can spare some time to take a nature walk, try to go down by the waterfront, and maybe you’ll get lucky and spot some of these amazing birds. Enjoy!

Was this article informative? Become a Beach Metro Community News Supporter today! For 50 years, we have worked hard to be the eyes and ears in your community, inform you of upcoming events, and let you know what and who is making a difference. We cover the big stories as well as the little things that often matter the most. CLICK HERE to support your Beach Metro Community News!

Click here for our commenting guidelines.

Leave a Reply