How-to Create a DIY Home for Your Flighty Friends

The winter months are the perfect time to get your summer guesthouse ready, and purple martins are eager to take up a lease.

Paul Reeves Photography /

Nimble in flight, rhythmic in their daybreak singing, the purple martin is one of the most popular birds in North America. Unfortunately, the number of martins is rapidly decreasing, due to competition for natural summer nesting areas. The birds travel to South America for the winter months, but, traditionally, have spent their summers in North America, nested in natural cavities, such as old woodpecker holes, on rock ledges or in dead trees. However, almost all martins east of the Mississippi now inhabit man-made nests. Housing martins has a long history in North America: Native Americans reportedly hung up hollow gourds around their villages to attract these musical birds.

Becoming a martin “landlord” is all about the location of your housing. The birds are more selective of where their homes are than of the design or shape of the abode. Martins prefer their housing to be put in open areas with clear flyways for easy entrance and exit. Surprisingly, the birds are quite interested in being surrounded by human activity; so the closer the landlord can place the birdhouse to their human house, the better. While human activity is a good thing near a martin’s house, trees are not. The birds like to nest no closer than 50 feet from any type of timber. So plan on mounting your birdhouse on a pole.

Birdhouses can be made in a variety of styles, such as the multi-level, modern or schoolhouse designs. The way a martin house is put together is truly up to the designer. There are just a few specifics that cater directly to martins:

Every design should have a “porch” attached to it that provides a landing spot for the martins. The hole that the martins enter should be about two inches in diameter and should be located approximately two inches above the porch floor. The inside of the house can vary in design: It could have two or three stories, or it could have just one large room inside the house (More stories means more birds.). Again, location means more to your success of attracting martins than does the design of your martin house.

Martin Facts

  • The purple martin is the largest swallow in North America.
  • Not only will purple martins eat insects while in flight, but they also drink water that way. Whereas many birds will stop by a lake or a pond to drink, a purple martin will fly across a surface of water and scoop up water in its bill.
  • The oldest known purple martin lived to be 13 years and 9 months old.
  • Purple martins do most of their feeding at altitudes between 160–500 feet (50–150 meters).
  • Purple martins are highly sensitive to bad weather. During long periods of cold or rain, there will be no insects to feed on, which may kill an entire bird colony.

Materials needed for the project:

  • Plywood
  • Rolled roofing or shingles (depending on your preference)
  • A power saw and drill/screwdriver
  • 2-inch wood-drilling bit
  • Screws
  • Paint (white or pastel colors are ideal)
Categories: Gardening