Purple martin fans welcome back their feathered friends

Jennifer Davis

A black silhouette against the pale blue sky, flashing dark purple and blue in the sun, purple martins are beautiful, addictive birds, says Lowell Fiedler.

This retired carpenter from Sunnyland should know. He's spent the past 40 years catering to them -- from crafting custom-made homes for them to sitting on his deck with an air rifle ready to chase away their predators. The pay-off: Fiedler has one of the largest colonies of purple martins in Illinois every summer.

"If I had a dollar for every hour I've spent watching them, I'd be a very rich man. It's one of the most unique colonies in the country," says Fiedler, who will soon host 300 pairs. That's 600 birds plus whatever babies they hatch. The first have already arrived.

Fiedler isn't alone in his passion for the purple-winged swallow. Griggsville, a small west-central Illinois town, may boast it's the "Purple Martin Capital of the Nation," but plenty of Peoria-area birders are willing to challenge that title.

William Klingbeil of Pekin has about 35 returning purple martins. The first two arrived March 21.

"The older ones come first. There's no such thing as a scout; I don't care what they say. They like to come on a full moon and with a hard south wind," says Klingbeil, who has been harboring purple martins for almost as long as Fiedler, about 35 years.

"I used to get a hundred pair. I've cut it back to 50 pair, 52 or 53. There's way, way more work to it than people believe."

But the rewards -- watching the same "family" of birds return year after year from Brazil -- are worth it, birders say.

Rich and Jane Klockenga of Edwards are newbies to this hobby compared to Fiedler and Klingbeil. They started with one birdhouse in 1999. This year, the couple expects to have "around 150 adults," says Rich Klockenga.

"They're just a peaceful, docile bird. They depend on humans for their housing now pretty much anywhere east of the Rockies. When they're nesting, I can walk right underneath their houses and they don't mind."

Klockenga even goes so far as to "feed" them.

"I only feed them right in the early spring" when the cooler temperatures mean fewer flying insects for them to feed on. "I'll throw crickets into the air or sometimes they'll take them if I put them right inside their homes."

If you want to attract martins because they are beautiful, sociable birds, Fiedler says you won't be disappointed. Don't, however, buy into the hype that they are mosquito vacuums. They do not eat up to 2,000 mosquitoes a day, as many claim. According to the Purple Martin Conservation Association, martins eat all types of flying insects, but rarely cross paths with freshwater mosquitoes.

"Martins are daytime feeders and feed high in the sky; mosquitoes, on the other hand, stay low in damp places during daylight hours or only come out at night," according to the association.

The genus name of the purple martin, Progne, is from the Greek word Prokne, daughter of Pandion. Greek legend has it that Prokne was turned into a swallow, a member of the bird family that includes the purple martin. The species name, subis, is Latin for "a bird that breaks eagle's eggs."

Though the largest member of the swallow family -- about 7 to 8 inches and with a wingspan of up to 16 inches -- purple martins are docile birds, easily driven away by sparrows and starlings. In fact, experts say that is one of the main reason people have trouble attracting or keeping them -- they are driven out by other birds.

"Keep your houses shut up early on," says Klingbeil. "Don't let (birdhouses) fill up with sparrows. Sparrows are very, very aggressive. So are starlings. And martins won't fight them."

Klockenga uses crescent-shaped openings on his houses "that the starlings can't hardly get into."

Klockenga also uses natural hollowed-out gourds to attract them, just as the Indians did.

"This last year, I started adding plastic gourds. They really like the natural gourds though."

Pat Gilles of Brimfield has had purple martins for about 12 years, but he tried unsuccessfully to attract them for a decade before that. It wasn't until he kept the sparrows and starlings at bay that he saw success. That, and he bought a recording of the purple martins' "Dawn Song."

"It works really well," added Gilles. "That first year, I had two birds and raised four babies. It just grew from there. I've got a dozen back right now."

All told, Gilles is anticipating "probably close to 100 pairs" this summer.

"I just love watching them, watching them soar. In the afternoon, they're very vocal. When one comes in to land, they'll all chirp at him."

Jennifer Davis can be reached at (309) 686-3249 or

Purple martin dos and don'ts


- Housing: Hollowed-out gourds are a good option.

- Go white: White housing seems to attract the birds and repel the sun.

- Height adjustable: Look for housing designed to raise and lower. Purple martins don't mind nest checks and it's a good idea to check for predators and insects.


- No trespassing: It's very important not to let sparrows or starlings take over.

- Free to roam: Don't put their birdhouses next to trees or your home. Housing should be in the center of the most open spot possible, preferably 30 to 120 feet from your house. The distance from trees is more flexible.

Source: The Purple Martin Conservation Association.