Female Purple Martins (Male vs Female Identification)

Purple martins are relatively widespread across North America, though most populations are concentrated in the east and the south.

These social birds are the largest swallows in North America and are known for their agile flying abilities. This is a guide to female Purple martins.

Purple martins are sexually dimorphic. The adult males are darker with the characteristic dark blue metallic sheen that looks purple in certain light. Females are darker on top and do have some blue sheen on their heads and wings but are duller brown overall with pale underparts.

While the female looks similar to other swallows, the male is immediately easy to identify due to his darker plumage and striking metallic sheen. However, the female Purple martin is considerably larger than other swallows, which makes it easy to identify.

Of course, there is much more to learn about these striking swallows - so read on to find out!

Close up of a female Purple Martin perched

Close up of a female Purple Martin perched

How can you tell if a Purple Martin is male or female?

The easiest way to tell male and female Purple Martins apart are by plumage color. Males are mostly a bluish-black gloss all over, whereas females are more of a brown color, with blue coloring on the top of their heads and backs.

The male adult Purple martin is a glossy blue-black with a metallic sheen that looks purple in certain light. He’s the darkest swallow in North America. The body and head are generally bluer than the wings and tail.

Contrastingly, the female is predominantly brown but is blue-black on the top of their heads and back with some metallic sheen, though not as dark as the male. Their tales and wings are dark, and their undersides are pale beige-brown.

She’s harder to identify from other swallows, besides her blue-black plumage and size - as Purple martins are considerably larger than any other swallow in North America.

Male purple martin

Male Purple Martin

Female purple martin

Female Purple Martin

What does a female Purple Martin look like?

Female Purple martins are large swallows with broad wings and short, forked tails. They have darker upper parts, including a blue-black head and back, though most of the wings are gray-black and lack the blue sheen of the male.

Their heads and necks are ash-gray, and their stomachs a pale gray/beige-brown. They have stout, strong bodies and short, sharp, and slightly hooked bills.

Female Purple Martin perched outside of her nesting cavity

Female Purple Martin perched outside of her nesting cavity

Are female Purple Martins bigger than males?

Male and female Purple martins are more or less the same size, measuring 7.5 to 7.9in (19 to 20cm) long and weighing 1.6 to 2.1oz (45 to 60g). They have a wingspan of 15.3 to 16.1in (39 to 41cm).

Purple martins are the largest swallows in the US and are pretty easy to distinguish for this fact, and for their blue-black metallic sheen, which is best observed on the male.

Behavioral differences

Breeding

At the start of the breeding season, the male will advertise territories to females. The male will tend to secure a nesting cavity to advertise to the female. Mating displays are poorly understood and involve the male standing in various postured stances.

Females choose mates with the best nesting cavities. Once paired, the male is fiercely defensive of his mate and accompanies her everywhere she goes. From there on, most pairs are socially monogamous, but bigamy and extra pair bonds are reasonably common.

When it comes to building and lining the nest, the female does most of the assembly while the male brings the material. After eggs are laid, the female incubates the vast majority of the time, but the male takes interest and visits the nest and may take over sometimes.

Both sexes feed the young, but the female probably edges it with the number of trips she makes to the nest with food. Once fledged, parental care pretty much stops immediately, but groups of fledglings often stick close to females until they become independent.

Nesting male and female Purple Martins outside of their house

Nesting male and female Purple Martins outside of their house

Territoriality

Males are territorial and defend their mate and their nests.

Early in the year, the male will attempt to defend as many nesting cavities as he can - up to 30 or more in some situations. Then, as the season progresses, the male gradually gives up his nesting sites to others. After all, he can’t hope to maintain that many nesting sites - as much as he’d like to!

While males Purple martins are more aggressive, both males and females will ferociously defend the nest and nestlings.

Migration

Single males tend to migrate first and reach their wintering territories before other birds. As a result, females might arrive weeks after young males.

Female Purple Martin in flight, from below

Female Purple Martin in flight, from below

Call and vocalizations

Purple martins have at least 10 or 11 calls and vocalizations. In addition, there are a few sex-specific Purple martin calls, including:

  • Choo - Commonly produced by adult females accompanying fledglings.
  • Croak - Croaky songs are commonly emitted by males in courtship and breeding.
  • Chortle - Similar to the above, but for females.

Males sing vigorously at the start of the breeding season to announce their territory and attract females. Paired males sing to defend their mate and advertise ownership of nesting sites.

Can female Purple Martins raise young alone?

Female Purple martins carry out the majority of nest building, incubation, and feeding of the chicks, but it’s a pretty slim majority.

Overall, Purple martins form generally strong and cooperative pair bonds and share duties well. So, it’d be highly unlikely for the female to raise young alone unless they’re close to fledging already.

Female Purple Martin perched on a stick

Female Purple Martin perched on a stick

Do female Purple Martins call?

Female Purple marts do sing, and have a few sex-specific songs, like a chortle song which they use to interact with males throughout the breeding season. The female’s Choo calls seem to help her communicate with fledglings.

Do female Purple Martins sing?

Female Purple martins don’t sing as much as the males, but they do have a specific Chortle song that is typical throughout the breeding season. This song is used to communicate with males.

What color are female Purple Martins?

Despite the name, neither male nor female Purple martins are truly purple. Instead, they have a metallic blue-black sheen that often appears purple.

Females are paler overall and lack much of the blue-black male plumage. They still retain some blue sheen on the back and head but are largely brown.

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