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Purple martins flock to ENC for breeding season

Courtesy Gail Hutchison
Manns Harbor Coastal Carolina Purple Martin Society
The tiny blue-black birds travel more than 3,000 miles each year from southern Brazil to North Carolina for breeding season. Some sites, like Manns Harbor, are home to thousands.

It’s purple martin season. The tiny blue-black birds have completed their migration from South America to North Carolina and East Coast states for breeding season.

I visited Manns Harbor in Northern Dare County. It was a windy day when I stopped by the roost right on the Croatan Sound. The purple martins are not only talkative, but also very skillful flyers.

“They look like stealth Flyers to me," Gail Hutchison said as a martin fought the wind to reach its nest. "They're really agile and are really strong flyers. You can tell that by today. So, I just admire their tenacity to be able to come here and hang out all summer and then fly right back to Brazil.”

Gail Hutchison is the President of the Manns Harbor Coastal Carolina Purple Martin Society, and she helps manage a small home for the martins.

“They will be all over the Outer Banks. Not just this roost here, but everywhere, and you can just see them flying around and chattering," she said.

The martin can fly up to 100 miles away from its nest each day to collect food. This time of year, the breeding pairs are laying eggs and tending to their fledglings. They're not often together though during the day. One martin stays at the nest to keep the eggs warm, while the other scavenges for food. When it returns to the nest, they trade off.

Courtesy Gail Hutchison
Manns Harbor Coastal Carolina Purple Martin Society

Hutchison and the Purple Martin Society set up a home for the birds next to the Umstead Memorial Bridge, which connects Dare County to the Outer Banks. The complex stands atop an 8-foot pole and can house 14 nests. She calls it the 'mac daddy' of purple martin homes.

Purple martins rely on man-made housing, especially in the Eastern U.S. Purple martins, however, are picky. The opening has to be a certain size, so larger birds can't enter. It must be high up so snakes can't slither up. The house has to be well ventilated and clean.

The reliance on humans is a product of centuries of cohabitation. In pre-colonial America, Native Americans like the Cherokee, hung hollowed gourds near farmland because a colony of purple martins can eat thousands of insects each day.

“They rely on humans to create habitats for them. So, you'll see them probably up to Raleigh, even in homes made out of gourds or houses that like this one here,” Hutchison said.

The birds first arrive in early April after wintering in Brazil. Millions make the annual trip from South America through Mexico to the Eastern United states for breeding season. The trip can take weeks.

Purple martins often return to the same nesting site each year. If you’re looking to establish a colony, Hutchison says it can be difficult at first, but once they’re established, purple martins will return year after year, especially if they’ve successfully raised a brood.

The roost at Manns Harbor has historically been one of the largest in the U.S. So big in fact, it sometimes shows up on weather radar. They take shelter in man-made homes and under the bridge right nearby. Hutchison says with a roost that large so close to a bridge, the martins need some protection.

"They need advocates for the bridge where they roost," Hutchison said.

The Purple Martin Society has partnered with the North Carolina Department of Transportation to place road signs on either side of the bridge asking drivers to slow down during dusk and dawn. Hutchison said the road signs help.


Right now, the martins are laying eggs and tending to their new fledglings. It’s one of the periods when the purple martins are most active, scavenging for food for their young. The other peak season is after the fledglings have hatched and are flying around. They like to set up under the bridge.

The Manns Harbor roost hasn’t been as large as in previous years. Hutchison figures it’s natural, as the martins spread out over the region, finding breeding sites in other areas, like Creswell and under the Neuse River Bridge in New Bern – on the Bridgeton side.

The martins will be in our area for another month or so. Based on her experience last year, Hutchison can’t say exactly when they’ll leave.

"They left a little early last year." she said. "It's weird when they do it because you don't know when that will happen. I'll come out here one day and go 'Oh, they're not here anymore.'"

Hutchison hosts a fireside chat of sorts each Wednesday, where she fields questions about migration, mating, and how to set up housing. Hutchison, like many birders, enjoys the swans, pelicans and cormorants found on the Sound, but she has a special affinity for the purple martin.

"I love hearing that chatter," she said. "They're very sweet and they chat a lot."

Ryan is an Arkansas native and podcast junkie. He was first introduced to public radio during an internship with his hometown NPR station, KUAF. Ryan is a graduate of Tufts University in Somerville, Mass., where he studied political science and led the Tufts Daily, the nation’s smallest independent daily college newspaper. In his spare time, Ryan likes to embroider, attend musicals, and spend time with his fiancée.