• Skip to Content
  • Skip to Main Navigation
  • Skip to Local Navigation
  • Skip to Search
  • Skip to Sitemap
  • Skip to Footer
Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Purple Martin

Progne subis ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: HIRUNDINIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Putting up a Purple Martin house is like installing a miniature neighborhood in your backyard. In the East, dark, glossy-blue males and brown females will peer from the entrances and chirp from the rooftops all summer. In the West, martins mainly still nest the old-fashioned way—in woodpecker holes. Our largest swallows, Purple Martins perform aerial acrobatics to snap up flying insects. At the end of the breeding season they gather in big flocks and make their way to South America.

Jane Kim Mural
Yard Map Attract More Birds

Keys to identification Help

Swallows
Swallows
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Purple Martins are very large, broad-chested swallows. They have stout, slightly hooked bills, short, forked tails, and long, tapered wings.

  • Color Pattern

    Adult males are iridescent, dark blue-purple overall with brown-black wings and tail. Females and immatures are duller, with variable amounts of gray on the head and chest and a whitish lower belly.

  • Behavior

    Purple Martins fly rapidly with a mix of flapping and gliding. They feed in midair, catching large, aerial insects such as dragonflies. Martins feed and roost in flocks, often mixed with other species of swallows. They often feed higher in the air than other swallows, which can make them tough to spot.

  • Habitat

    Purple Martins are colonial, with dozens of martins nesting in the same spot; they feed in open areas, especially near water. In the East they nest almost exclusively in nest boxes and martin houses; in the West you’ll find them nesting in natural cavities.

Range Map Help

Purple Martin Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult female and male

    Purple Martin

    Adult female and male
    • Large, dark swallow
    • Long wings and large bill
    • Adult males are glossy purple overall, but in poor light, appear black
    • Adult females are dusky gray with some glossy purple on crown and back
    • © Cameron Rognan, Montezuma NWR, Seneca Falls, New York, May 2009
  • Adult male

    Purple Martin

    Adult male
    • Large swallow
    • Long, pointed wings
    • Dark, glossy purple overall, with duller wings
    • © Cameron Rognan, Montezuma NWR, Seneca Falls, New York, May 2009
  • Adult male

    Purple Martin

    Adult male
    • Large, stocky swallow
    • Large bill
    • Glossy violet sheen overall, with darker, duller wings
    • © Jim Paris, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, Oceanville, New Jersey, May 2010
  • Adult female

    Purple Martin

    Adult female
    • Large, stocky swallow
    • Long, pointed wings
    • Females are mostly gray with smudgy streaks on breast
    • Some glossy purple on crown and shoulders
    • © Stefon Linton, Alberta, Canada, May 2009
  • Adult female

    Purple Martin

    Adult female
    • Large swallow, occasionally with a "peaked" crown
    • Larger bill than other swallows
    • Females are mostly gray with smudgy streaking on breast
    • Purple iridescent patches on crown and back
    • © Simon Richards, Richmond, British Columbia, Canada, August 2011
  • Adults at breeding colony

    Purple Martin

    Adults at breeding colony
    • Large, chunky swallows
    • Nest colonially, often in man-made nest boxes with multiple "apartments"
    • Glossy purple males appear mostly dark/black from a distance
    • © J.M. Kosciw, Hammonasset Beach State Park, Madison, Connecticut, August 2011
  • Adult male

    Purple Martin

    Adult male
    • Larger than other swallow species with longer wings and a larger bill
    • Males are dark, glossy purple overall with duller black wings
    • Slower wing-beats in flight, resembling a European Starling
    • © Malcolm Gold, Moffit, North Dakota, June 2010

Similar Species

  • Adult

    Tree Swallow

    Adult
    • Smaller and daintier than Purple Martin
    • Tiny bill
    • Snowy white underparts
    • © Joe Povenz, Holland, Michigan, May 2011
  • Adult

    Tree Swallow

    Adult
    • Shorter, narrower wings than Purple Martin
    • Bright white underparts distinctive in flight
    • Tiny bill
    • © Andy Johnson, Scio Church & Parker Rds., Washtenaw County, Michigan, April 2010
  • Adult male

    Barn Swallow

    Adult male
    • Smaller and more slender than Purple Martin
    • Long, forked tail
    • Buffy-orange underparts, with rusty throat and forehead
    • © Eddie Y, Flushing Meadows, Corona, Queens, New York, May 2011
  • Adult

    European Starling

    Adult
    • Larger and stockier than Purple Martin
    • Long, sharply-pointed yellow bill
    • Short, squared-off tail with no notch
    • © Eddie Y, Flushing Meadows, Queens, New York, June 2011

Similar Species

Purple Martins are larger than any other common North American swallows, but this can be hard to judge in the field. Northern Rough-winged Swallows are brown above with a smudgy brown throat very similar to the coloration of a female Purple Martin; however, their small size and square, not notched, tail should help to set them apart from martins. Bank Swallows are small, with brown upperparts and a crisp, dark-brown bar across the upper chest. Barn Swallows, though glossy blue above, have rich peachy underparts and long, deeply forked tails. Tree Swallows and Violet-green Swallows are clean white below, with mostly squared tails. Cliff Swallows show a pale rump from above, and they have a rich red throat and creamy-buff patch over the bill. European Starlings have long bills and short, broad-based, triangular wings that give them a choppy flight style instead of the smooth, rowing flight of the long-winged martins.

Regional Differences

Female Purple Martins in the West show more extensive white on their underparts than do eastern birds.

Backyard Tips

Put up a Purple Martin house in your backyard, and you just might be treated to a close-up look at these engaging birds all through the breeding season. You can put out crushed eggshells to give the martins a source of grit for digesting insect exoskeletons.

Find This Bird

In eastern North America during the summer, look for Purple Martins around martin houses, the miniature condominiums that many people put up in yards. The birds are more challenging to find in the West, where they nest in woodpecker holes in dead snags. Foraging Purple Martins hunt insects higher in the air than other swallows, but in the afternoon and evening they may feed low and close to nest sites. In late summer you might see enormous roosts of Purple Martins, particularly in the Southeast as they prepare to cross the Gulf of Mexico.

Get Involved

Purple Martins are a focal species in Project NestWatch. Learn more about them and contribute your data at their Purple Martin page.

House Sparrows and European Starlings are major competitors for martin nest boxes and can keep Purple Martins from breeding. Our Project NestWatch offers some suggestions for deterring these non-native species.

Our eBird project is a great way to keep track of the dates Purple Martins arrive and depart each year, and any other sightings in between.