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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Purple Martins: Extroverts of the Air

Air Date: Week of

The purple martins can’t seem to stop talking. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

East of the Mississippi, purple martins gather. Writer Mark Seth Lender watches a handful of purple martins as they catch insects, squabble, and converse, and ponders what they could be chattering on about.


CURWOOD: East of the Mississippi, Purple Martins are completely dependent on the nest boxes we build for them. Perhaps that’s why they are exceptionally tolerant of human beings. Though, at times, when writer Mark Seth Lender listened to them, he wasn’t sure that what they were saying entirely expressed their approval.

Conversational: Purple Martins
© 2015 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved

LENDER: Looping, they land. A fist-full of sapphires: Purple Martin (blue, on black). They stand, at the doorways of their houses made of tin, walls ringing at their touch. Their loud purple tinted talk. The clip! of flight feathers as they climb again into the sky. In curves and curls, sideways pointing, inside, upside down: Purple Martin hunting insects on the wing. Follow the figure if you can, a course no kite tethered to a human hand can shadow. They clatter as they fly. Too much to say, too little time. Mouths wide as the blue horizon, a long bright glittering. Over the cloud-filled pond. Over the dark green land.

In between snippets of conversation, purple martins on the wing snatch dragonflies from the air – then go right back to their chattering. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

And again to their perch all-at-once, talk-talk-talking.

One goes where he should not, a station that belongs to someone else, and voices rise and feathers fray and feet tangle in midair! One offended. One chastised. One self-righteous and victorious. One, inglorious. Then each back to their rightful place, and the chorus of conversation drops back to the conversational.

I’ve come to listen and to watch, out in the open, close in. They circle, then, wings wide, they glide, and grasping to the landing place they settle — But not quite not all the way. They keep me in sight, every one. And the chatter becomes a stage whisper below the normal pitch of Purple Martin talk. Whirr. Purr. Hum. The staccato of their clicks like punctuation marks (as well these may be). Overtones…. Harmonies…. The cantillation of some ancient text, no doubt, we once understood. Lost to us now a thousand centuries.

Wingtips flared, a purple martin glides deftly onto its home. Menunkatuck Audubon Society maintains the purple martin houses at Hammonasset State Park in Connecticut. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

The sun goes down. The day comes to a stop.


In the last of twilight Purple Martins go on talking, as if behind my back. To each other? To themselves? All about . . . Me?

CURWOOD: Writer Mark Seth Lender recorded these purple martins at Hammonasset State Park in Connecticut, where their nest boxes are maintained by the Menunkatuck Audubon Society. There are photos at our website, LOE.org.



About the Menunkatuck Audubon Society

About purple martins

Attracting purple martins to your backyard


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