The Simple Logistics of Attracting Purple Martins to Your Backyard 

  • Martin Houses Must Be Painted White In Color.

If you have a wooden house and it is natural in color or painted any other color but white, this may be one of the reasons that you are not successful in your martin endeavor. If your house is painted any color but white, that is fine and good if your intent is to attract nuisance birds such as non-native bird species, English House Sparrows and European Starlings. Natural color cedar houses are fine for other cavity nesters, such as Eastern Bluebirds, Nuthatches, Black Capped Chickadees, House Wrens, Tree Swallows, and Titmice but these colors will not do if you are targeting Purple Martins.

If you want to attract martins to your backyard, you will have to paint your Purple Martin house white. Today, martins are only imprinted on, and typically seek out, white birdhouses. White houses are better for the martins due to the fact that they are reflective of hot summer heat. They were painted white for decades, and that is why, over the years, the martins only relate to white nestboxes (birdhouses). You need not paint the inside white! Outside trim may be any color.

If you are painting your new wooden martin house, may I suggest that you use white oil base stain and not white solid paint? While solid white paint will wear in the elements and peel, the white oil base stain will only wear thin.

  • You Must Properly Place Your PM House In Your Yard.

  1. To attract martins, the martin house should be located in the most open area of your backyard. It must be 40 feet from trees, or, in the least, it should open in the areas leading from the entrance holes. If your house becomes hidden within a stand of trees, martins may never give your Purple Martin house a look.

  2. The martin house, while 40 feet from trees, should be within 100 feet of a human dwelling or outbuilding.

  3. One of the most important in the attraction of martins, is the complete restriction of English House Sparrows and European Starlings from your martin house and surrounding areas . If you allow sparrows or starlings to nest in your house, you will never be able to attract martins to this house. These birds that should be trapped and disposed. These birds are non-native species, and because of this, they are not protected by any state or federal wildlife law.

  • Remember!  Martin houses are only for Purple Martins! PM houses are very valuable pieces of martin real estate!

    Multiple martin houses can be placed very close to each other.  There are no rules on this. It is recommended to have all martin housing in one area of your yard for your enjoyment and for the colony’s benefit and protection.

  • All  Martin Houses Must Raise And Lower Vertically, Not Pivot Or Tilt!!

Because of the insidious and never-ending problems with nest-site competitors, like English House Sparrows and starlings, today's martin interest needs housing that raises and lowers VERTICALLY. Pivoting and/or tilting poles are now considered out of fashion. Today, we need to lower martin housing on a frequent basis to trap, remove sparrows/starlings, sparrow/starling nests and perform nestchecks of our birds (see nest checks--to follow). If you do not have this vertical raising and lowering capability, either update your martin equipment or make a Zook Lift Elevator which is an arm which moves a previously stationary house up and down the side of a martin house pole via a winching system.

If you need directions for such an apparatus, send a stamped, self-address businss envelope to:

The Purple Martin Society, NA
7510 Farmingdale Drive Suite 107
Darien, Il 60521

  • Telescoping Martin House Poles Must Be Marked.

Martins are imprinted on their compartments by compass direction. Those of you who have telescoping poles (poles of which have sections that collapse down into one another to lower the house) must mark the houses with a black permanent magic marker, N,S,E,W underneath the house where you can see it so that when you bring the martin house down, you will raise it in the exact compass direction as before it was lowered. You should also mark the pole where the sections come together so that it helps you raise it correctly in the right compass direction.
If you do not correctly do this, your martins will return to the incorrect compartment and may desert their nests that are in another area of the house. Remember! These are only little bird brains that we are dealing with here.

  • Do Not Open Martin House Too Early In Spring.

One major mistake that freshman landlords make in their zeal to attract martins is that they open the martin houses too early in the spring. (Check the PMCA Scout Arrival Timetable) English House Sparrows are on the breeding grounds already as the martins arrive and will be tenaciously defending cavity nest sites in your martin house weeks before the martins arrive. Scouts are the are martins which are loyal to their former successful nesting and breeding sites. They are our birds, that is, those of us who are already successful in our martin endeavor. The adult birds faithfully return to our same sites, year after year, as long as they live AND as long as we, their landlords, provide safe conditions for them, protecting them from raccoons, opossums, chipmunks, squirrels and Horned Owls (their #1 predator) and Barred Owls.

  • The Martins That Start New PM Colonies Are The Subadult Martins.

What are the subadult martins? They are the young that were hatched and fledged from the previous martin season and are returning for their first breeding season.  They are "first-year" birds, or yearlings, as some landlords call them.

  • Subadult Martins arrive 6 weeks after older Martin Scouts.

The martins that colonize new martin housing or previously unsuccessful martin housing are the subadult martins. These are your birds to look and wait for. The subadults are the young martins that we have all have fledged from our colonies last year. The subadult males return for their second year as birds which all look like females. Subadult birds arrive six weeks after the older scouts do. So, if the scouts (adults) in your area arrive, for example, April 1, and you have not had martins in the past, you should keep your martin house plugged until about Mother's Day in the above example area. Why should you subject yourself to weeks of unnecessary sparrow harassment when your birds are not even due to come for another six weeks (on or around May 15)? The subadults arrive six weeks later about May 15. And then when the subadults do arrive, do not open all the compartments!. Only open enough to accommodate martin traffic in your martin house. Again, if you open every unit, the sparrows will fill them all with their nesting materials, subjecting you to many weeks of unnecessary sparrow harassment. Opening your house too soon may cause you to lose heart and enthusiasm.

The PMCA Scout Arrival Map

Map courtesy of the Purple Martin Conservation Association.
Map reprinted from the PURPLE MARTIN UPDATE MAGAZINE1(3):1, 1988
On the Web, You can contact the


If you have had martins in the past, you should keep your martin house plugged until   you hear that scouts are in the area or have seen them or expect them right on schedule.  Why should you subject yourself to weeks of unnecessary sparrow harassment when your birds are not even due to come for another six weeks? The subadults arrive six weeks later. And,  when the adults (scouts) or subadults   do arrive, do not open all the compartments! Only open enough to accommodate martin traffic in your martin house. Again, if you open every unit, the sparrows will fill them all with their nesting materials.


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