How To Band Your Purple Martins

So You Want to Have Your Martins Banded?  Landlord and Bird Bander  Protocols

  John Balga, Ontario Purple Martin Association

I often receive emails or phone calls from interested landlords wanting to have their martins banded and who often look for someone to come out to their locations and band. I am not immune to the barrage of questions which follow once they know that I band martins. Here are some of the   questions which come forth: “Will it hurt the martin?”   Another question may be, “Do you use a fish net to catch them in the air?”  Another: “How do you put the bands on their legs?” Another: “Won’t the martins abandon the housing if you band them? Another: “Will the bands fall off? I guess you can see that there are many questions and many reasons why purple martin banding education is so important.

Where do you start?

First, I must admit that I am sub permitted purple martin bird bander and a citizen scientist who tries to give them an explanation of how the martins are banded, and the banding protocol that I follow according to our local banding criteria.  Then, I ask them what protocols they follow when they have visitors come to see their colonies or when they view or monitor their martins.

Most landlords say they check their martins at least once a week by lowering their houses and checking the eggs or chicks in the nest. They mention too that they do a nest change when it is required for a dirty, wet and soiled nest or a nest which is loaded with insects: blow flies, mites etc. Sometimes they also mention that they talk to their martins to familiarize their birds with what is going to happen.  Martin landlords are quite educated today thanks to the many organizations that practise similar education protocols. If everyone followed the same rules, life would be very easy for the martins but as often is the case new landlords require some guidance and advice. So forgive me if this sounds like a rehash of previous writings but I must insist on this delineation.

Purple Martin Housing Management Protocol

In a nutshell then, these are some martin housing protocols that need to be mentioned even before you start banding at a location.

  • Install housing that can be easily raised and lowered.  Do not use tilt down poles or use a tall ladder to access the compartments.
  • Approach your martin colony slowly and don’t frighten them by your quick actions.
  • Determine which house will be lowered and time how long it is lowered .It is important that housing be lowered not when the hens are laying their eggs in the early morning hours but preferably later when most of the birds are out feeding. Therefore, lower the martin house slowly to avoid any quick ejections or egg roll outs.
  • Ensure that the housing doesn’t scream down the pole so lubricate the pole on a needs basis.
  • Use proper safety procedures to make certain no injuries will occur.  Ensure that no one other than you is next to the pole or rack when lowering it. Remove the safety pin or device when you are sure that all is ready to lower in the final position.
  • Open your house doors in an orderly fashion using the LOVE protocol (Lift, Observe, Verify and Examine).Lift or open the doors slowly and remove any debris in the entrance way which may impede closing afterwards. Observe the general condition of the nest, the nest contents and their condition. Verify the number of eggs or young and replace the entire nest completely with suitable nest straw if the nest condition is such that it will cause injury. Some younger martins lay on bare floors so replace the few twigs with a suitable recreated nest. Examine the young for parasites and general condition and ensure that the nest pocket remains intact and in the same position it was created.
  • While completing the nest check write down what you see at least in a minimal fashion:  date of examination, number of eggs or young, approximate age. If you are not sure, use the PMCA nest monitoring chart found online or readily available from the PMCA Marketplace.
  • Mary Wilson has her own homemade purple martin prognosticator. You may wish to make your own: Purple martin homemade date scale
  • Check your time and determine how long the housing system has been down and how long the martins have been away to prevent them from brooding their eggs or feeding their young. Nest checks can be broken up into shorter time intervals: 15 minute intervals or 20, 25 etc. Weather conditions will also dictate how long the nest check should take place. LANDLORDS ARE ADVISED NOT TO LOWER THEIR HOUSING FOR NEST CHECKS DURING INCLEMENT WEATHER UNLESS IT IS NOTICED THAT THE MARTINS HAVE OVERCROWDED OR FILLED A COMPARTMENT TO THE POINT WHERE THEY CANNOT EXIT.
  • Return the house to its original position by carefully raising it to its original height and orientation and return the safety pin and lock your winch hardware.

Now that you are knowledgeable about your martin house protocol, it’s time to determine a date when they can be banded. A good time to band martins is when they are between 11-22 days. Check your written data to see the week or day when these days correspond to your calendar date. If you have a martin prognosticator (available from the PMCA), this will make your job easier in determining a suitable banding date. It is a calendar of purple martin young development to determine on which dates banding may occur.

Purple Martin Banding Protocol

The bird bander is there to work with your martins and to follow a certain banding regime by entering data about your colony for future reference and research. It is also your job if possible to guarantee that the banding will be successful by following purple martin nest and housing protocol. When the previous conditions have been met, banding conditions are perfect to ensure a successful experience.

Host Responsibilities

If you wish to assist the bander, you may wish to have the following available:

  • Chair and Table of appropriate height for banding the birds
  • An umbrella or cover to shade the participants from the sun
  • Some wipes or cleaning cloths to remove any excrement
  • A suitable banding bucket/box to remove and return the young martins
  • A handy bucket of straw for the odd nest replacement if required
  • Suitable door plugs to keep the birds inside the house (age dependent)
  • A clock or watch to monitor the duration of the banding session per house
  • An available wash room facility just in case
  • A camera to document the day’s event
  • A lot of patience, smiles and excitement to carry everyone through


This is not a complete list but certainly helps and avoids a lot of frustration before or after the bander arrives.


  Banding  Protocol

The information routinely obtained for each bird captured during a banding session is indicated below. The standard references are Pyle (1997) and Pyle (2008), supplemented for non-passerines by North American Bird Banding Techniques (Canadian Wildlife Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1991). Data routinely recorded for all newly-banded birds, recaptures, and other recoveries include:

– band number, species, age and how aged, sex and how sexed, unflattened wing chord, presence and extent of fat, weight, date of banding, time of banding, initials of bander, location of capture (GPS), probable age or sex if not 100% sure, initials of scribe, comments (any additional relevant information e.g. feather loss, ticks, etc.)

In addition, if time permits and at the discretion of the Bander, other information may be collected.

Most martin Banders just band nestlings between 12 and 22 days because the martin nestlings have legs that are too fat to take a band without pinching their legs. Nestlings older than 22 days squawk when handled and will usually be difficult to keep in their nest once they have been banded causing them to fledge prematurely. These numbers are benchmarks to keep young nestlings safe but a Bander will determine whether the young legs are appropriate size to band.

Wow! After reading all this who wants to band purple martins? As you can see, there are many responsibilities which a Host landlord and Purple martin bander must follow to ensure a delightful experience for everyone concerned. Nothing replaces education but experience in the field with a great purple martin mentor and an experienced purple martin bander. Hopefully, when the next question arises about banding martins, the previous tips will assist everyone in this process.

In conclusion, banding purple martin is always a wonderful experience and begs for other neighbors, young children, grandkids etc. to be present and experience the moment. Invite the press or local news to your backyard or colony location. Purple martins are in decline so every bit of media exposure only benefits from this exposure!

Side Note: John Barrow’s Advice

As the colony stakeholder, one of the most important things you can do is have index cards for each of the cavities to be banded from identifying the system and cavity number, number and age of the nestlings. This card can (should) be transported in a carrying bucket/device along with the nestlings and should accompany them back to the cavity after they have been banded. It is important to get the same brood back to the right cavity. If I were you I would do complete nest checks a few days prior to the banding and prepare cards in advance. If necessary, information as to number of nestlings can be corrected when the brood is pulled. Having the age written down on the card will assist the banders in recording that age. Or you can have an aging sheet available at the banding table as mentioned above.


This is Necessary:

Finally, as the stakeholder, have transport buckets to tranport nestlings available, along with towels to cover and shade buckets and to calm older nestlings. Have a couple of wet towels available at the banding table and hand santitizer for quick cleanup use. (Folks pulling nestlings from gourds should encourage them to “poop” by rubbing their bellies, before they are placed in transport buckets and carried to the banding table). Have tables and chairs available for the banders to sit at in a nearby shady location; have extra pencils/pens and paper available and consider having snacks and drinks on hand. When I band martins I like to rotate positions and allow participants to undertake different tasks. Likewise I like to share the process with young participants and children. They can become adept at guessing the weight/age of nestlings and I have never had a problem allowing them to quietly hold or touch a nestling with some supervision. The one chore that I delegate with most caution is that of pulling out and returning nestlings to the proper cavity. I consider that task to be the most important.