Making Room for Purple Martins on Public Property

As bird populations continue to decline, volunteers are scouting new real estate for purple martins in parks, schools and other public settings

  • By Heather Valey and Delaney McPherson
  • Wildlife Photos
  • Mar 28, 2024

A once-injured male purple martin found by volunteers now resides at a wildlife rescue in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Heather Valey.)

FOR PURPLE MARTINS and the humans who admire them, one solution to habitat loss may be in plain view: public land.

While numbers vary, some estimates put the population decline of the North American songbird, which winters in South America, at about 25 percent from 1966 to 2021. To help offset that prolonged drop, a collection of people—colloquially known as purple martin “landlords”—have long installed substitute housing in their yards or gardens. These nesting sites—which look like either miniature “Star Wars” apartments or cell towers, depending on whom you ask—mimic the martins’ natural choices for homes: the holes in trees or crevices between rocks. As secondary cavity nesters, the birds do not build their own nests.

Now, though, as the birds’ numbers continue to dwindle, some dedicated martin lovers have staked out new territory for pioneering colonies. Two of those leading the charge are Julia and Andy Balinsky, married martin landlords in Austin, Texas, who manage a pair of colonies on municipal property: one at a biosolids treatment plant and another at a city park.

Finding those locations and getting the colonies started, they say, was the easy part. “You don’t just sit back and watch. It’s a lot of work,” says Julia, who has been a purple martin landlord for more than 20 years. “Ideally, we try to visit the colonies every five days from April to mid-June.”

The Balinskys check nests frequently to ensure martin fledglings are healthy and that no invaders—often invasive European starlings or house sparrows—have encroached. In times of drought or bad weather, landlords may provide supplemental water or food, such as crickets or mealworms. The Balinskys also volunteer with their local Audubon chapter, leading seminars on taking care of the martins and mentoring new landlords. They say all the effort pays off in the last few weeks before the fall migration south, when hundreds of thousands of martins gather together in one spot.

“The impressiveness of the massive roost of swirling birds, and knowing you had a part in that, is a big moment,” Andy says. “You tally up the spreadsheets [of successfully hatched and fledged martins], and it feels good to know that those birds wouldn’t be in the sky without us.”

Read more about photographer Heather Valeyand see more of her purple martin photos below.

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