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Our Brazilian Connection – The Purple Martin

Get to know this sociable swallow that migrates to Vero Beach from South America

The activity level of a purple martin nest box can be frenetic as they arrive home after a hunt and compete for the best perch.

The activity level of a purple martin nest box can be frenetic as they arrive home after a hunt and compete for the best perch.

The bane of the novice birdwatcher is the little bird. Besides being small, they hide in the bushes and because they are normally not breeding in Florida they are not decked out in their most brilliant plumage. The ideal little bird then would be the largest of their species, one that sits on a birdhouse in your backyard and one that comes here to breed. Introducing the purple martin, the largest of the North American swallows that migrates here not from the north to escape winter’s harsh conditions but from the south­ ­— as in Brazil, South America.

Like the cliff swallows of Capistrano, purple martins are the harbingers of our early spring, reliably arriving within a two-week period from late January to early February. Although Florida temperatures at that time are not that much different from those in Brazil, the birds pick up on the shift in weather as it starts cooling down there as compared to our trend toward warmer weather here in Florida. The rise in temperature triggers a flush of insect emergence that attracts birds looking for a steady and predictable food supply in preparation to breed.

The first birds to arrive, called scouts, are among the oldest birds in the population. Both male and female, they have site fidelity, which means they return to where they nested the previous year. The males claim a nesting hole in the nest box and defend it from other males until a female arrives that likes the location. They both may in fact choose more than one until the rest of the colony arrives weeks later and they relinquish their least favorite locales for just one. In the process of choosing a preferred site the female gets the male defending it as part of the deal.