Purple Martins Nesting in Street Lamps

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Programs Team Leader and Bob Strahorn, Delmarva Ornithological Society

On May 27, 2011, I conducted a Breeding Bird Atlas survey with Bob Strahorn and Carol Majors for the State of Delaware.  We walked and drove around block 21, which is south of Newark to find evidence of breeding birds.  After birding around the Cooch-Dayett Mills property along the Christina River, we drove past Glasgow High School and noticed Purple Martins flying around the parking lot.  We stopped and did not see any martin houses, and quickly realized they were going in and out of street lamps.

Purple Martins were seen swarming around street lamps at the Glasgow High School. Photo by Bob Strahorn

The downward-facing glass globes looked like they were broken by rock-throwing teenagers or perhaps angry, venting teachers at the school.  At any rate, the vandals created perfect nest sites for the Purple Martins.  Usually in our area, Purple Martins use houses and artificial nest boxes put up for them.  Historically, they nested in rock crevices, old woodpecker holes, and other such cavities.  Many still use these natural cavities out west, but in eastern North America, they are almost completely found nesting in non-natural “martin apartments”.

Here, a male Purple Martin proudly perches on the nest pole with the female incubating inside. I wonder what happens if the lights still work!? Photo by Bob Strahorn

If you conduct a quick google search, you can easily see that Purple Martins are known to do this on occasion, but none of us had ever seen it, or heard of it happening in Delaware.  The oldest record I could find references Purple Martins nesting in electric arc-light caps in Vergennes, Vt in 1897.  (Auk, Vol. XIV, 1897).  Obviously they figured this out long ago, but it is still really interesting to see how adaptable this species is.  Having trouble attracting them to your property?  Maybe this method will work for you!

Another Purple Martin nesting in a broken street lamp, Glasgow High School, DE. Photo by Bob Strahorn

In all, we think there were four pair at this site, plus a pair or two of European Starling using other broken street lamps.  The Delaware Nature Society will be contacting the school to see if they would consider installing a martin box to expand the colony next year.

7 thoughts on “Purple Martins Nesting in Street Lamps”

  1. laurie a curl

    how nature adapts simply amazes me……..as always, thanks for sharing your great photos & knowledge!

  2. Unless someone is going to actively monitor a Martin house, it’s not a good idea to put one up there, IMO. The days when one could put up a house and be assured that the correct species would benefit, are, unfortunately, over. As a Purple Martin landlord myself, I know that the constant battle against Starlings and Sparrows is only won by having vigilant human protection. A better idea, IMO, and what I am working toward, is making people aware that having these unintended nestsites is one reason why there are 200 million starlings in North America. Light poles at every car dealership and shopping center in Delaware have pest birds nesting in them, due to human negligence. The light bulbs get changed, but the cover is not put back on the pole. Highway signs have access covers that have been left off. Pole buildings are put up lacking the necessary corner fillers. I feel the population could be significantly reduced if basic maintenance procedures were enforced. Unfortunately, these birds have been around so long that most people do not even know they are not native. And most people do not care, which is not surprising, since the only impression a lot of people have of birds, is of these pest species with their filthy nests, and bird droppings everywhere. It is no wonder most people do not really care about birds, IMO.

  3. Charlene Ryan

    Maybe this is the key to their survival. Martins will improvise and seem to like being around humans.

  4. I would imagine that the bulbs, where there are nests, are burnt out? They look like high pressure sodium that would get pretty hot with the nest only inches away?

  5. Joe Sebastiani

    I am not sure if the bulbs are burnt out or not. We are going to contact the school to see if a teacher will take ownership of a martin box, so that it is maintained. We will ask about the bulbs as well. Joe

  6. laurie a curl

    It is really cool how after reading this article, I “really” take notice of street lamps on I-95 other than a use for hawk perching. Spotted what I believe to be the same as your photo is located at North 95 at the Harvey Road exit. Have not been able to get a really close look as too dangerous to stop. But I am sure it is one as so resembles your photo. Thanks again for pointing out yet another fascinating adaptation of nature!

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