Summary: The largest swallow in the United States is the purple martin. This brightly colored bird flies during most of its waking hours and eats and drinks while in flight. At flight speeds of up to 45 miles per hour, the purple martin could teach a thing or two about multi-tasking.
The purple martin is the largest American swallow. It is commonly found throughout the eastern part of the United States, but it is rare in the region west of the Rocky Mountains. This bird enjoys flying and nesting in open areas, especially places near bodies of water.
Although named the purple martin, the adult male is actually the only kind with purple feathers. The female and young purple martins are usually gray in color. Adults typically grow up to eight inches in length from feather to bill.
The purple martin almost always makes its nest in a cavity, such as a woodpecker hole or a crevice in a large rock. It will not create its own cavity, but it will nest in manmade cavities or birdhouses. Both males and females will fight with other purple martins for the perfect nest, not unlike humans fighting over real estate with a view.
Once a nest is formed, the male martin follows the female around relentlessly and is totally monogamous. She will lay about a half dozen eggs and incubate them for a half a month. After the eggs hatch, the male and female parents find food for the young. The baby purple martin matures in about three weeks, after which it goes off on its own.
After the purple martin matures, it may join a flock of up to one hundred thousand birds. The flocks travel for food beginning in the early morning and may fly about eighty miles per day. By nightfall, the exhausted birds return to their nests. Towards the end of the summer, they migrate south to warmer temperatures in Brazil.
The purple martin spends much of its time in flight, at times flying at speeds reaching 45 miles per hour. It does not rest when searching for and eating food. So, it has adapted to eating flying insects, including moths, dragonflies, June bugs, bees, butterflies, and flying ants. Truly a case of eating on the run.
The purple martin also does not stop to hydrate itself, either. Instead, it flies over a body of water and slurps up liquid with its lower bill. Think of a human constantly walking and trying to drink everything through a straw and then you have the picture of a purple martin.
Here's something that might surprise you. In spite of all those ads from companies that build purple martin bird houses, purple martins are not prodigious consumers of mosquitoes. The purple martin flies during the day and mosquitoes usually fly at night. Purple martins fly high in the sky and mosquitoes fly low, near the ground. So, their paths rarely cross.
Some find that homemade nest boxes are great homes for purple martins. Native Americans who hung hollow gourds for the birds to nest in during the eighteenth century may have inspired these nest boxes. The benefits are that the birds have a place to live and that the humans will see some colorful birds that help control the bug population around their yards. In fact, because there are so few purple martins in the eastern region of the United States, the birds have for the pest century only lived in manmade nest boxes instead of natural cavities.
Because the purple martin relies so heavily on flight for its food, poor weather conditions threaten the bird. If there is rain or cold temperatures for three days or more, the purple martin may not be able to survive.
The overall population of the purple martin in the United States has decreased in recent years mainly because the nesting places of the bird are being eliminated. One reason for this is because of deforestation. The purple martin likes to nest in cavities inside trees, so if there are fewer trees, there are fewer purple martins. Another reason for the decline in the population of this bird is because its nesting places are being taken over by the European starling or the English sparrow. Even with all these pressures, the purple martin is not yet considered an endangered species.