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According to The Purple Martin Conservation Association, more than one million North Americans put up housing for Purple Martins, yet many people are unable to attract breeding martins. Given this daunting statement, it is surprising that a flock of Purple Martins has chosen a senior living community in Dallas to call home. The birds migrate to Presbyterian Village North every year for breeding, and begin migration back to Brazil toward the end of summer. 

Ingram Schwahn, Bird Landlord for Presbyterian Village North, has been caring for and tidying special houses for the Purple Martins to make sure the birds come back year after year. The twenty houses are located within PVN’s campus at various locations throughout the community.

Purple Martins are a rare species and residents at PVN feel special knowing the birds have chosen to call their community home.

“The Purple Martins have called Presbyterian Village North home for quite a few years,” said Schwahn. “Right now we are undergoing an expansion project, so it’s not as populated as it usually is, but I hope more of the birds will come back next spring. I took over caring for the birds five years ago, which was really no challenge since I’ve been maintaining birdhouses for much of my life. I have always had a few houses on my own properties in Rockwall and Mississippi. Caring for birds has been a hobby I’ve enjoyed for most of my life.”

Purple Martins (Progne subis) are the largest member of the swallow family in North America, measuring 7 1/2 inches (19 cm) long and weighing 1.9 ounces (55 grams). As of late May, ten of the birdhouses were occupied, with forty rooms containing forty eggs and inhabited by twenty-six fledglings. Most of the birds are residing in six of the houses along Shepherd Road on PVN’s eastern border. As part of the expansion project, a new independent living apartment building will be attached to the east side of the Corrigan Activity Center, and it will be called Martins Landing after the beloved birds.

“Ten in the morning is the best time to visit the birds,” said Schwahn. “At that hour, the fledglings are still sleeping and I can pull down one of the houses and take a fledgling out to hold. I showed them to some children that were visiting last month. I love the excitement they share with me in celebrating these amazing birds. The Purple Martins trust humans, so they know I will do their fledglings no harm. They see me cleaning the houses and putting out feed. That builds trust.”

Half of the fledglings now have feathers and should be ready to fly very soon. They must be ready before most of the birds begin their migration back to Brazil, which will happen toward the end of July. They’ll spend eight or nine months there before returning to PVN. With all the extra rain this season, the martins will provide a valuable service keeping down the mosquito population while providing entertainment for the many bird watchers in the Village.

The Purple Martin Conservation Association provides special tips for building and maintaining a breeding site for Purple Martins.

  • Location: Housing should be placed in the center of the most open spot available, about 30-120 feet from human housing. There should be no trees taller than the martin housing within 40 feet, preferably 60 feet.
  • Timing: At active sites, landlords should have housing ready, but keep it closed until some martins are back.
  • Housing: Houses and gourds should be painted white, or a light pastel color; trim can be any color.
  • Competition: If any other species of bird is allowed to claim martin housing first at a site that has not been colonized, any martins that may come around are not likely to stay because they will be aggressively chased away.
  • Replacing Active Housing: To safely replace a single active house, place the new housing near the housing you plan to remove, and give the martins an entire season to get used to it.
  • Predation: The most common reason martins abandon their colony site is because predators have raided their nests.

“Ingram’s hard work at keeping the Purple Martins comfortable and cared for ensures they come back each year,” said Ron Kelly, executive director of Presbyterian Village North. “We are thankful for his time and energy, as we all enjoy observing the birds, thinking about their long migration and how rare it is that they have decided to call PVN home. There’s only a little bit more time until they leave for Brazil. We are going to cherish every minute and will wait for their return next year.”