Gourd Home - Purple Martins

Martin Gourd Homes

Gourd Style Purple Martin Houses were first used in North America by Native Americans who discovered that martins could be lured into their villages by hanging up gourds with holes cut in their sides.  Native Americans like the Creek Indian tribe and others grew gourds for bowl and other purposes, and among the many uses of their gourds, named the Purple Martin Gourd was to make nesting homes for the Purple Martin birds.

In 1831, Alexander Wilson gives an account of the methods used by the Choctaw, Chippewa, Delaware and Chickasaw Indians who "cut off all the top branches from a sapling near their cabins, leaving the prongs a foot or two in length, on each of which they hang a gourd, or calabash, properly hollowed out for their convenience. When saplings were not conveniently situated the Indians set up poles, fastened crossbars to them and hung the gourds to these crossbars."

When the European colonists arrived in the new world they too adopted the Indian custom of hanging gourds for Purple Martins, but they also supplemented them with ceramic gourds and wooden martin houses.   Today, Purple Martins will only nest in homes provided by people east of the rockies.

They will not nest in trees, and their homes must be tended and prepared for them by the people who own them. Improper care of the home or failure to clean them out can cause an individual to lose and entire colony, and starting a new colony is difficult.  Once a colony has started though, if proper steps are taken, the Purple Martins will return to the same nesting grounds year after year. 

Western Purple Martin populations in the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountains and in the Desert Southwest, still mainly use natural cavities, such as abandoned woodpecker holes or cavities in Saguaro cacti, but have recently begun nesting in single unit martin houses and gourds near bodies of water.

Today, east of the Rockies, Purple Martins are the only bird species totally dependent on humans for supplying them with nesting sites.  If humans were to stop supplying martins with homes, they would likely disappear as a breeding bird in eastern North America.

The Home Sweet Gourd

The Pros and Cons purplemartin.org/update/GourdHome.html

  • Gourds offer larger nesting compartments
  • Gourds have range-wide acceptability
  • Gourds have a higher R-value
  • Gourds discourage the nesting of English House Sparrows and European Starlings
  • Gourds increase the odds of attracting martins
  • Gourds cost less
  • Gourds weigh less
  • Gourds are durable

Gourd Selection and Preparation

1. When gourds are not treated with any type of preservative. The repeated wetting and drying of raw, unpainted gourds will cause them to crack. Always paint the outside of gourds with some form of water-repelling, oil-based paint. The PMCA also recommends soaking gourds in a copper sulfate solution as a "wood" preservative. This prevents rotting.

2.When gourds are not painted white. Gourds should be painted white to reflect the heat of the sun. This helps keep the nesting chamber cooler for the nestlings. A glossy white, oil-based paint will work best.

3. When small gourds are used. Martin gourds should be at least 8" in diameter, preferably 10"-12." Martins will use gourds smaller than 8", but lay smaller clutches of eggs in them and also have higher mortality rates due to fallout from severe overcrowding of nestlings.

4. When thin gourds are used. Gourds should be at least 1/4" thick, but gourds 3/8" to 1/2" thick are the best. The thinner the gourd, the poorer its insulating qualities and the more likely it is to crack.

5. When weather-caused cracks aren't repaired. Should a crack develop, patch it immediately with a quick-drying caulking or spackle.

6. When old nests aren't cleaned out between seasons. Molds and mildews can grow under old nests and cause the bottom of gourds to rot out. Also, fleas that attack nestling martins can over-winter in old nests. So always clean the old nests out of gourds and take your gourds inside by late August.

7. When left out to weather all winter long. Leaving a gourd out 12 months of the year will drastically shorten its life. Store them inside.

8. When hung so they can strike each other in the wind. Gourds that are placed so close together that they swing and hit, not only can crack, but they also are frequently abandoned by the birds. Space them out.

9. When hung so they twist in the wind. Gourds should be hung so they swing in the wind, not twist in wind. The compass orientation of the gourd's entrance hole should not change while blowing in the wind.

10. When entrance holes are cut too high or too low. Entrance holes cut too high allow more rain water to come in. Holes cut too low can allow small nestlings to inadvertently tumble out. Always test how a gourd hangs before cutting the entrance hole, then center the cut on an exact vertical face.

11. When hung on lines stretched between trees. Martins will rarely use gourds hung on lines stretched between two trees. They instinctively know squirrels and other predators can easily reach their nests. Hang them between poles instead, or on specially-designed gourd racks.

Common Misconceptions

1. Gourds only last one or two seasons. A gourd can last over 30 years if properly prepared, preserved, and maintained.

2. Gourds get too hot inside. Research has shown that martin nests built in thick, white-painted gourds stay just as cool as nests in wooden housing, and cooler than nests in aluminum housing.

3. Baby martins fall out of gourds. Far fewer baby martins fall out of gourds than fall out of houses. This is because the porches found on most houses encourage nestlings to wander out onto them long before they are physically capable of flight. Unfortunately, once on the porch, nestlings are often knocked to the ground by non-parental martins, where they perish. Because gourds lack porches, baby martins stay inside them, where they belong, until they can fly.

4. Gourds are difficult to clean at the end of the season. Removing a martin nest from a gourd is a very simple task, taking only a few minutes per gourd.

5. Martins will only use gourds in the southern United States. Martins will nest in gourds throughout their entire breeding range.

6. Gourds are difficult to monitor. When gourds are mounted on telescoping or pulley-operated poles, they are quite easy to monitor. Simply shine a flashlight in each hole to observe and record its contents.

7. Gourds are brittle and will break easily. Even though gourds are a dried fruit, martin gourds are nearly as hard as plywood.

8. Nests get wet in gourds. Nests in gourds stay drier than nests in commercial aluminum housing, even housing equipped with subfloors. This is because gourd nests are about three times bigger and thicker than nests in 6" x 6" house compartments, plus gourd nests are built up the curving back wall, up to 10" from the entrance hole. Finally, gourd drainage is superior to house drainage, because gourds have curved bottoms and numerous drainage holes.

Resources copied and sources for additional information

  • purplemartin.org
  • purplemartins-r-us.com
  • purplemartin.net
  • .thegourdreserve.com/#history
  • .birdhouseinfo.com/information.html
  • naplesflpurplemartins.com/about-purple-martins/the-history-of-man-and-martin
  • chuckspurplemartinpage.com/10gourd.htm
  • auduboninternational.org/PDFs/WHM-%20Purple%20Martins.pdf

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