Progne subis

Status:  Common regular spring and fall migrant east, uncommon central, rare casual west. Common regular breeder east, locally common central, rare casual west.

Documentation:  Specimen: UNSM ZM10234, 30 May 1895 Lancaster Co.

Taxonomy:  There are three subspecies recognized (Pyle 1997): arboricola of coastal British Columbia to southern California and New Mexico, hesperia of southern Arizona, and subis from east-central British Columbia to south Texas and east to Newfoundland and Florida. Nebraska birds are presumed subis.

Spring:  Mar 25, 25, 25 <<<>>> summer

Earlier dates are 10 Mar 2011 Kearney Co, and 22 Mar 2008 Lancaster Co.

This species arrives early in spring, with male “scouts” arriving first, sometimes to perish in inclement weather. Females arrive later; one was in Otoe Co by 31 Mar 2012. Arrival of larger numbers occurs in late Mar, and numbers peak in May.

Away from Lewellen in Garden Co, an occasional breeding location, there are few Panhandle reports: 21 Apr 1953 Dawes Co, 2 May 2020 Scotts Bluff Co, 7 May 1996 Garden Co, 10 May 1949 Dawes Co, six on 1 May 1996 Sheridan Co (Grzybowski 1996), 20 May 1961 Scotts Bluff Co, 23 May 1959 Scotts Bluff Co, two on 27 May 2018 Gordon, Sheridan Co, 28 May 2010 Crescent Lake NWR, Garden Co, and 31 May 2009 Crescent Lake NWR.

  • High counts: “hundreds” at Wehrspann Lake, Sarpy Co 5 May 2013, 80 at Wagon Train RA, Lancaster Co 9 May 2021, and 55 at Lakes North and Babcock, Platte Co 6 May 2021.

SummerAround 1900, Purple Martin occurred primarily in the south and east, in the Elkhorn River drainage northwest to West Point, Norfolk, and Neligh, the Loup River drainage northwest to Broken Bow and Callaway, and in the Platte River Valley west to North Platte (Bruner et al 1904). Since then, there has been gradual westward range expansion in these river drainages and elsewhere, notably the Niobrara and Republican River Valleys. Probably most of this expansion is due to installation of nesting boxes (Tout 1947, Brown and Tarof 2020).

Along the upper Elkhorn River Valley, where breeding was cited by Bruner et al (1904) in Neligh, it is likely that westward movement involved a jump to tributaries of the Niobrara River at Ainsworth, Brown Co. Breeding has occurred at Ainsworth since at least 1964, when Short (1965) found them common over the town. However, Brogie and Mossman (1983) did not find this species at the Niobrara Valley Preserve in 1982, and the only records between the west edge of Knox Co and Valentine in the Niobrara River Valley are of two probable “scout” reports from Springview, Keya Paha Co 16 May 2017 and 13 Jun 2009, and one at Norden Road, Keya Paha Co 1 Jun 2019.

These reports suggest that westward expansion has taken place via the Elkhorn River drainage to Niobrara River tributaries southwest of Valentine and to Valentine itself, where colonies have established in elaborate martin houses constructed by local resident Lester Dooley (James Ducey, pers. comm.). There has been a breeding colony in northeast Valentine at the Dooley residence in the 500 block of North Ray hosting as many as 40 pairs since at least 1982 (James Ducey, pers. comm., Mark Brogie, pers. comm.). A second location is at 900 West Candice (James Ducey, pers. comm.). A colony at the Wacky West RV Park at the east edge of Valentine, active in 2015 (Keith Dyche, pers. comm.), is no longer present as of 2021 (James Ducey, pers. comm.).

There are a few additional reports from Valentine 16 May 2015, 9 and 11 Jun and 8 Aug 2019, the latter of 64 birds, 13-14 Jun 2002, 19 Jun 2016, and 13 Jul 2015. The only other summer records west of Ainsworth are in Cherry Co, three at Fort Niobrara NWR 6 Jul 2014 and 3-6 there 20 Jun-10 Jul 2019, and 1-3 at Valentine NWR 9-18 Apr 2015.

In the western Loup River drainage, there was a series of reports from Logan Co as early as 1934 (Glandon and Glandon 1934), but only one since then, 6 May 2007 at Stapleton. One was in northeast Lincoln Co 14 Apr 2012. There is an established colony as of 2017 in the Broken Bow area of Custer Co where the species has been present since the time of Bruner et al (1904), and there are reports from the Calamus and Sherman Reservoirs, Loup and Sherman Cos respectively. There may have been a colony at Arnold, Custer Co at one time (Mark Brogie, pers. comm.) but there have been no recent reports from there.

Purple Martins have long been present in the Platte River Valley, as far west as North Platte (Bruner et al 1904). Tout (1947) indicated that erection of martin houses had resulted in some nesting in North Platte, probably in the 1930s, although no dates were given. Of interest was Tout’s observation of Purple Martins nesting on a downtown North Platte building “for several summers around 1910” before House Sparrows had become common. Small populations breed regularly in the North Platte Valley west as far as the Lake McConaughy area, Keith Co; around 1977-79 Lewellen, in Garden Co, was considered the “westernmost regular nesting site in Nebraska” (Rosche and Johnsgard 1984), although there are no recent reports from that area. Westernmost current (2017) breeding is at Ogallala and Lake McConaughy, Keith Co, where nesting birds have been present at least since 2004. There are no records west of Ogallala in the South Platte River Valley in Nebraska, although there are two in northeast Colorado at Ovid and Prewitt Reservoir (eBird.org, accessed April 2017).

The only recent summer reports from the Panhandle away from Garden Co (above) are 10 Jun 1990 Cheyenne Co, 2 Jul 2002 Scottsbluff, Scotts Bluff Co, and 29 Jul 2010 Bridgeport SRA, Morrill Co.

There are only scattered reports throughout the Republican River Valley, although regular breeding has probably occurred there since the 1960s. Mollhoff (2001) showed a confirmed breeding record along the Republican River in southeast Dundy Co, presumably at Benkelman, where summering birds have been present at least since 1989; it was “numerous” at the Benkelman site 13 Jun 2014, up to 60 were there 11 Jun 2017, and 100 on 23 May 2020. Two were at Rock Creek SRA, Dundy Co 21 Jun 2014. It is common in Culbertson, Hitchcock Co where it has nested since 1965. In the tributary Frenchman Creek Valley, there have been sporadic reports for Chase Co since 1982, including 25 at Enders Reservoir 1 Jul 2011. The only reports from Perkins Co are 29 Jul 1973, two at Grant 18 Jun 2011, two there 6 Jul 2017, and one on 13 Jun 2018. Small colonies may have established from time to time in Imperial and Grant (Mark Brogie, pers. comm.).

Even though Purple Martins have increased their range since the early 1900s, BBS trend analysis indicates the species has gradually declined statewide at an annual rate of -2.94 (95% C.I.; -5.82, 0.22) during the period 1966-2015 (Sauer et al 2017). Mollhoff (2016) noted a small decrease in the number of reports between the first and second BBA projects.

  • Breeding Phenology:
    Eggs: 23 May-9 Jun
    Fledglings: 14 Jul-4 Aug
    Colony abandoned post-breeding: 29 Jul

Fall:  summer <<<>>> Sep 26, 26, 27

A later date is 29 Sep 2015 Douglas Co.

Departure is early, generally in Aug and early Sep, although flocks form in late Jul after colonies are abandoned following breeding in late Jul-early Aug; 1200-1500 were migrating over Omaha, Douglas Co 30 Jul 2007.

The six Panhandle reports, presumably of migrants, are of nine in Dawes Co 29 Jul 2009, 2 Aug 2012 Ash Hollow SHP, Garden Co, 5-23 Aug 1905 Glen, Sioux Co (Swenk 1906, Mollhoff 2001), 21 Aug 1999 Kimball Co, three on 5 Sep 2017 Morrill Co, and, rather late, a juvenile 13 Sep 2013 Lake Minatare, Scotts Bluff Co.

Purple Martins are known for forming very large post-breeding roosting aggregations. A major roost in downtown Omaha in the area of 44th and Farnam near the University of Nebraska Medical Center was first reported in 2008 when there was a peak count of 35,000, and enjoyed by good crowds of the public resulting from publicity by local newspapers and TV stations, as well as expert birders Jim Ducey and Justin Rink and others. Subsequent peak counts (Ducey, Rink) were 65,000 during 23-28 Aug 2010, 65,000 on 1 Sep 2011, 60,000 on 27 and 30 Aug 2012, 70,000 on 1 Sep 2013, and 45,000-50,000 in both 2014 and 2015, but in 2016 the peak count was only 5000 as the roost shifted a short distance north. Birds first appear at the roost in late Jun and most have departed by mid-Sep, soon after reaching peak numbers.

The 44th and Farnam roost was abandoned in 2017 but a new roost formed in Omaha in 2018 in the area of 22nd and St. Mary’s Avenue. Peak count at the latter site was 10,000-15,000 on 31 Aug; the birds were seen to depart “en masse” to the southeast early on 4 Sep. A large aggregation of at least 2500 returned to Haworth Park, Sarpy Co on two consecutive nights 29-30 Aug 2018. Lincoln, Lancaster Co hosted a roost of 10,000 birds 30 Aug-3 Sep 2019.

  • High (non-roost) counts: 12,000-15,000 over Omaha 20 Aug 2007, 4000-5000 in Douglas Co 21 Aug 2011, 2750 at Lincoln Saline Wetlands NP, Lancaster Co 24 Aug 2020, 1200-1500 in Douglas Co 30 Jul 2007, 1000+ at Neale Woods, Douglas Co 20 Aug 2005, and 1000 in Sarpy Co 13 Aug 2016.


BBA: Breeding Bird Atlas
BBS: Breeding Bird Survey
CBC: Christmas Bird Count
NWR: National Wildlife Refuge
SHP: State Historical Park
SP: State Park
SRA: State Recreation Area
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum
WMA: Wildlife Management Area (State)


Photograph (top) of a Purple Martin at Walnut Creek Lake and Recreation Area, Sarpy Co 8 Jul 2007 by Phil Swanson.

Literature Cited

Brogie, M.A., and M.J. Mossman. 1983. Spring and summer birds of the Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska: An annotated checklist. NBR 51: 44-51.

Brown, C.R. and S. Tarof. 2020. Purple Martin (Progne subis), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.purmar.01.

Bruner, L., R.H. Wolcott, and M.H. Swenk. 1904. A preliminary review of the birds of Nebraska, with synopses. Klopp and Bartlett, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.

Glandon, E.W., and R. Glandon. 1934. Additions to the list of Logan County birds. NBR 2: 61.

Grzybowski, J.A. 1996. Southern Great Plains Region. Field Notes 50: 74-77.

Ludlow, C.S. 1935. A quarter-century of bird migration records at Red Cloud, Nebraska. NBR 3: 3-25.

Mollhoff, W.J. 2001. The Nebraska Breeding Bird Atlas 1984-1989. Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union Occasional Papers No. 7. Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Mollhoff, W.J. 2016. The Second Nebraska Breeding Bird Atlas. Bull. Univ. Nebraska State Museum Vol Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Part I, Columbidae to Ploceidae. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, California, USA.

Rosche, R.C., and P.A. Johnsgard. 1984. Birds of Lake McConaughy and the North Platte River Valley, Oshkosh to Keystone. NBR 52: 26-35.

Sauer, J.R., D.K. Niven, J.E. Hines, D.J. Ziolkowski, Jr, K.L. Pardieck, J.E. Fallon, and W.A. Link. 2017.  The    North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966 – 2015 (Nebraska). Version 2.07. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, Maryland, USA.

Short, L.L., Jr. 1965. Bird records from northern Nebraska during the breeding season. NBR 33: 2-5.

Swenk, M.H. 1906. Some Nebraska bird notes. Auk 23: 108-109.

Tout, W. 1947. Lincoln County birds. Published by the author, North Platte, Nebraska, USA.

Recommended Citation

Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen. 2021.  Purple Martin (Progne subis). In Birds of Nebraska — Online. www.BirdsofNebraska.org

Birds of Nebraska – Online

Updated 5 Jun 2021