Home Sweet Home

John Miller spends a lot of time in St. Louis’ expansive Forest Park. His gaze is rarely upon the path in front of him. Instead, he’s looking up — for the iridescent purple birds darting hither and yon. Miller’s passion is supporting the growing population of purple martins that return to Forest Park each year to raise their young.

“For me, it’s just a wonderful way to enjoy nature, but it comes with a responsibility to the birds to do it the best I can,” says Miller. “It’s my way to become an amateur wildlife biologist, but mostly it’s just a thrill when martins return in spring.”

Purple martins have an annual migratory cycle that includes winter in the rainforests of the Amazon Basin and summer as far north as Canada. This large swallow has a long history of using man-made cavities, from hollow gourds to elaborate bird box apartments, and that’s what inspires Miller to share his purple martin skills.

Miller learned about purple martins from his grandfather and put up some of his own houses as a teenager. In 2005, he sought permission from the City of St. Louis Parks Department to erect a martin house in Forest Park, and eight pairs took up summer residence. Now there are purple martin houses on six poles located throughout the park.

“The colony has grown to about 65 pairs per season now, probably one of the largest colonies of martins in an urban park in North America,” says Miller.

Purple martins arrive in Missouri from March through May. The first arrivals are older male birds that defend potential nesting sites until they are paired with a female. The females arrive a few weeks after the males, with pairing occurring in May. After rearing their young, they begin southward migration early, with most departing by late August.

Purple martins throughout eastern North America mostly nest in human-provided housing or in man-made structures such as highway lights. Native Americans strung racks of nesting gourds to attract purple martins. Settlers in colonial America constructed large multi-compartment houses placed on poles and rooftop cupolas.

Proper placement of martin houses is vital. For purple martins, protection from predators is important. They seek open, treeless areas where they can avoid aerial predators. They forage for flying insects nearby over water and grasslands.

In addition to installing, cleaning, repairing, and improving martin houses at Forest Park, Miller monitors