May 2011
Featured Articles

Joe Levins' Purple Martins

Choose Wetumpka as Their Home

Early in the 2011 season, Joe Levins, Wetumpka, stands in the foreground of his Purple Martin gourds. He encourages others to take up the Purple Martin hobby, “The more landlords we get out there, the more Purple Martins we’ll have.”


Flying thousands of miles, they travel to North America to raise their families in the United States as well as Canada. The long journey can take up to several weeks to complete. Although some will falter and may not survive the journey, thousands will. The migrating bird known as the Purple Martin lives part of the year in North America; it lives the balance of the year in South America. During their time of residence in the Northern Hemisphere, many birds choose Joe Levins’ gourds outside of Wetumpka as their home.

For more than three decades, Joe Levins has hosted Purple Martins.

"Thirty-five years ago, I had one pole with 12 gourds on it," Levins shared. "I didn’t know anything much about them at the time. About 15 years ago, a neighbor, and now good friend, Bill Harris stopped by and offered to share with me his Purple Martin Conservation Association [PCMA] Update [The Update] magazines. Once I started reading, I got lots of ideas. It’s a hobby, an interest, which has really grown for me over the years."

The Update provides research information in addition to landlords’ successes and failures. As Levins continued talking about the birds, it was obvious his knowledge of the species is quite broad. Reading, research, learning from the PMCA forum and visiting with other Purple Martin landlords have all contributed to his knowledge, in addition to his own time spent studying the birds.

With more than 90 percent of his gourds full in 2010, Levins has obviously discovered what it takes to provide satisfactory housing. His gourds are a combination of natural and four different types of plastic. He builds the natural gourd houses to provide the best nesting for the birds. Each gourd has drain holes in the bottom, elbow ventilation tubes at the top, a porch, a canopy over the opening to prevent rain from entering the nest and an access port on the back. Levins primes the gourds and paints them white. He finds white gourds are much cooler for the birds. He also recommends the larger-sized gourds, approximately 9-11 inches in diameter at the base.


Levins offers both natural and plastic gourds for Purple Martins.

"The access ports on the back of the gourds allow me to clean out the nests at the end of the season," Levins explained.

"I clean the gourds thoroughly before hanging them in my barn for storage. Some of my gourds have lasted me over 10 years!"

Levins places 24 gourds per pole; this year he has six poles so he can accommodate as many as 144 mating pairs. He has a winch on each pole so he can let the gourd rack up and down without difficulty. The winch is great for weekly nest checks and makes the end of the season work much easier. He builds his own poles and makes them for others, too. Some of the poles he has made are as far as 50 to 75 miles from home!

While Levins performs weekly nest checks on his mating Purple Martin pairs, he can also watch one martin couple a little more closely. He has a webcam installed inside one of the gourds so he can watch their daily activities. Live broadcast is transmitted to a dedicated channel on his television.

"We really enjoyed watching them last year," Levins admitted. "It was so exciting to watch the eggs hatch! My granddaughter loved it last year when she saw one hatch; she’s crazy about looking at the birds!"

Purple Martins have five to six eggs, sometimes seven. Incubation is approximately 15 days by the female who has a brood patch on her chest. The babies are born without feathers. Within a few minutes of their birth, they start getting fed. Both parents feed the babies. Adult birds catch their food in the air. Purple Martins begin coming to the area as early as late January and typically continue through March. Females begin laying their eggs in April. Most fledglings and parent birds have flown south by July 4th.

Levins realizes Purple Martins have a number of natural predators so he does what he can to give the birds an advantage. Natural predators include snakes, hawks, raccoons, owls, sparrows and starlings. The owls can be a big problem in the night. Recently he fashioned owl guards for each gourd. As a result, last year owls really were not a problem for his birds. To help control the hawks, he has open areas and lanes leading up to the gourd poles to allow good visibility for the Purple Martins. They will usually have one bird as a guard for the entire colony. Levins also has Purple Martin decoys placed within the area. The hawks will attack the decoys, giving the martins time to evacuate. He controls the starlings by shaping the entrance holes on his gourds into half circles. Sparrow traps are strategically placed in the yard to reduce their threat. Sparrows are known to puncture the eggs and peck the baby birds to kill them.

With such an accommodating landlord as Levins, it is no wonder migrating Purple Martins chose to return to his gourds each year.

"They are interesting and I have enjoyed it," said Levins about his hobby. "They are a fun bird to watch fly. They will fly straight into their entrance hole. They are just amazing to watch!"

Think you are ready to bring Purple Martins to your yard? Visit your local Quality Co-op to purchase all of the necessary items. They have the poles, gourds, guards and more. The folks at the Co-op can direct you in the right direction. The PMCA provides a wealth of knowledge about the birds in both print material and on the Internet. Landlords like Joe Levins are happy to assist as well. Many of them, like Joe, are members of online forums. These folks are happy to share information about their successes and failures. Good luck and have fun!

Ashley Smith is a freelance writer from Russell County.