PURPLE MARTIN GOURDS - Household Crafts and Tips: The Foxfire Americana Library - Foxfire Students

Household Crafts and Tips: The Foxfire Americana Library - Foxfire Students (2011)


People in years back put up martin houses to entice the martins to stay on their place during the summer to chase off chicken hawks. Bryant McClure told us: “My mother had purple martins long ago and they were not for catching insects, but to keep the hawks away from the chickens. They’ll fight them. They’ll fight a crow. If a hawk comes around, these purple martins will gang up on him. They’ll chase him out of the country.”

The primary reason people erect purple martin gourds or apartments now is to keep flying insects away from their gardens and from around the house. People who have them say they can sit outside late in the evening in the summer and not be bothered by mosquitoes or gnats.

Lester Davis says, “I guess the martins help me a lot because they eat all the bugs and insects. Martins will cover a large area eating insects, mostly mosquitoes. They’ll be up in the elements all day long until nearly sundown. You can see them dive like a jet airplane. A lot of people like martins, especially around ponds.”

To prepare a gourd for a martin house, a large round gourd with a short neck should be used. A round hole, two inches in diameter, should be made in the side of the gourd. Then small holes should be drilled in the bottom so that rain water will drain out. Drill two small holes through the neck of the gourd for a wire to be run through to hang the gourd by.

Mr. McClure told us how he got started with his martin houses. “When I decided I wanted to get purple martins, I bought an expensive setup—apartments, aluminum pole, and all that. I guess for two years I didn’t get a martin. Two came and sat on the little deck, but flew away and never came back. I asked Bob Hooper what went wrong, and he said, ‘You’ve got to have gourds.’ Gourds must be their natural houses. I got gourds. I sent to Georgia and paid seventy-five cents apiece for them. I put them up and the next year I got martins.

Articles needed:

One galvanized pipe - 20-21 feet long; one and one-half to two inch diameter

One galvanized pipe - 3-4 feet long; two to two and one-half inch diameter

Two crossarms - 2×4; seven to eight feet long.

Ten to twenty gourds

Bag of cement






Mr. Davis told us that he raised his own gourds. Ask for seeds for martin gourds. [NOTE: We have recently received word that seed companies like George W. Park Seed Company, Inc., and Hastings Seed Company sell not only dipper gourd seed, but also a special variety ideal for martin houses.] “I don’t have any trouble. I like to plant my gourds in fairly rich soil where they’ll grow good. I want to get a good growth. I plant my rows about twelve feet apart and my hills in the rows about twelve feet apart. I’ll take my shovel and dig a square about three or four feet out, fill it with fertilizer and rake it nice and smooth. I plant my seed in that in early spring.” Mr. Hooper suggested a mesh fence for the vines to grow up on, so that the gourds could hang down. This helps them to grow straight. Don’t pick the gourds off the vines. Let the vines die, and after the first frost, turn the gourds over so that they will dry out on both sides. Pull them off the vines after they are completely dry and hard—about December or January. Then they are ready for holes to be drilled in them and the seeds cleaned out of the inside of the gourds. Both these men save their seeds from year to year. Then they select the year’s crop of shortnecked, big, round gourds. Gourds may be reused from year to year, but as they get battered, replacements are necessary.

“In preparing houses for the martins, you should always clean the gourds out and put sulfur in them to keep down mites … about a teaspoonful to each gourd. Mites get in the feathers of the martins.”

Put the gourds on a pipe or pole, about twenty feet high. The gourds are put up in February and taken down to be cleaned and stored after the martins leave in late July or August. Nylon cord is recommended by Bob Hooper to tie the gourds to the crossbars on the pole [see ILLUSTRATION 30], as wire breaks easily when the gourds are blown by the wind. The martin houses must be erected out in a field or clear area in the yard, away from trees and buildings. The martins don’t want to be anywhere that a cat or snake could get to their nests. Martins won’t even light in a tree. They do not present the usual problem of birds near the house because they carry their droppings away in little capsules.

Mr. Hooper told us many interesting things about the martins. They have several poles with gourds in their back yard and sit out in the evenings watching the martins fly in and put their babies to bed after feeding them. They wake the Hoopers in the mornings with their chatter, and the Hooper family feels as though some of their children have left home when they depart in August. We asked if they thought the same ones ever came back, and they said that they really do think so. They seem to know their way around so well. Mrs. Hooper said that when she hangs clothes on the line, they perch on the electric wires and chatter. When she goes in, they fly off until she or some other member of the family come back out in the yard. They they come back to visit again.

About the only time they light on the ground is when they are building their nests and then only to pick up leaves and twigs. They like to line their nests with green leaves to keep the nest cool. They will come down for crushed eggshells if you put them out on the ground in the open. That is about the only thing you can feed them off the ground. They do most of their feeding in the air, low to the ground in the mornings and climbing higher all day long, then back near the ground in the evenings.

The martins send out scouts in early March. They can be seen around for two or three days. Then they leave and after several weeks, the scouts come back with others. By the twenty-fifth of March, about ten pairs will be around a set of gourds. Each pair usually likes to occupy two gourds—one for the parents and one for the young. They stay only long enough for their young to hatch and be able to fly. It takes about three weeks for them to hatch, and they start building the nests about the first of May.

The purple martin is about the size of a dove in the air. If the sun shines just right on the male, he is purple. Mr. McClure says that one morning you wake up and realize the martins are gone. It’s such a lonely feeling. There is no way to keep them here after late July. They stay just long enough to raise their young; then they go back to South America until the next spring.


Photos by Tom Carlton.