Grey Breasted Martins

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I am responding to a request to write an article on Grey Breasted Martins..

Grey Breasted Martins..
( progne chalybes)
by Victor Stoll

In the fall of 1969 we were one of several families that moved to a small Central America. Country of Belize. This was a grave undertaking for us as a family..
I especially was eagerly looking forward to seeing the colorful birds I had read about.. But most of all I hoped to find martins nesting in Belize as we arrived in 1969.. I scanned the sky daily but not a martin could I see.. There were numerous swallows gliding about the country side busy catching insects and having a good time on vacation just waiting for the time to migrate back North to their nesting sights to rear their broods..

On a Saturday in late January 1970 my wife Esther ,,I and the children all headed out for a drive to the town of Cayo to buy our weeks supplies.. The team of horses was pulling the wagon at a slow pace as we entered town and were just crossing the Belize River when I looked up at the power lines.. Martins.,,martins, Grey Breasted martins.. whoopee.. There were 7 of them.,. huddled up and not a sound did they make.on this very cool morning...As the weeks passed by more Grey Breasted martins kept arriving and activity really picked up.. They were coming in under the porches and under eaves of large buildings.. As we traveled to the large City of Belize there were areas of dead trees and snags where Grey Breasted martins were seen occupying holes in these dead trees and snags.. Indeed martins were plentiful in Belize . They were not choosey and nested in a wide variety of places..

Now as we traveled North,,South,,East, and West not a martin house or Gourd rack could we find in the whole country. We even ask the Indians if they ever remember of putting up gourds for birds.

When the Purple martins landed on the power lines with the Grey Breasted martins the purple martins were noticeably larger then the grey breasted?The song of the Grey Breasted martin is not as distinct nor as vocal as the Purple martin,, yet they are similar to a large degree..

It was early March before we got around to constructing 4 one room houses , a 3 room house that resembled a snag.,, Plus a 12 room house.. all made of wood ?It was a month later in early April that a male Grey Breasted martin came sailing in making a lot of noise. He was attracted to the 3 room house we had placed on a snag..It was not long before one day two more males appeared but they were driven off with an outburst of aggressiveness, that gave chase until the 2 new males were driven out of sight..He closely took up closely guarding all the houses,. Then one day he brought in a female..In several days they were nest building in the 3 room house placed on the snag. They still had never stayed overnight.. It was not until her clutch of eggs was laid that the pair stayed overnight? As the season progressed this single pair of Grey breasted martins did a great job patrolling all the houses and showed such aggressive behavior that I marveled if they were close relatives to the tree swallows or even worse.. any new martin that made any attempt to come in was fiercely driven off out of sight,,.,The pair of grey breasted martins successfully raised 4 young.. In the following spring of 1971 the same pair came back and built a nest in the same snag,..They continued to keep control on all the houses..but one day it happened? Three new male martins at one time,, and they were in a fighting mood.. The old pair were incubating eggs . There was lots of excitement going on, The old male had never, never expected such an encounter..While he was out chasing one male, the other males would enter holes,, The female had more then she could handle..and gave up but her male mate kept on trying to run the the others off. When it was over, 2 more males had gained a one room house..In the next several days they both gained a female and immediately started nest building ..and all three pair successfully raised broods?but that 1971 our second season

Another event took place in 1971..We received a large package of gourd seeds from a lady in Georgia with complete instructions of how to raise gourds and prepare them for martins..It is with regret.that we lost her name, and address..She had seen my article in Nature Society News on Grey Breasted martins This turned out to be a real blessing even though I never had any use for gourds as I had lived in the North. However since we grew cantaloupes and watermelons for a living, It should not be hard to grow gourds.. So in the summer of 1971 we grew a large patch of gourds.. Then in the spring of 1972 we prepared 40 gourds painted white to resist the heat...We placed 20 on each gourd line.. The question was would theseGrey Brested martins take to the gourds??..The martins showed no interest in multi compartment houses.. There was no evidence that man had ever put up gourds or houses in this small Central American country.. We did not have long to wait..These Grey Breasted martins just loved the gourds.. They fought intensely and the gourds were a they nested only two feet apart..My colony grew from 3 pair in 1971 to 22 pair in 1972.. In 1973 and 1974 my colony grew rapidly.. Even the multi houses gained several pair of martins.. This seems to prove that although very aggressive,,they will adopt to man made housing?

There are no English Sparrows or European Starlings in the country of Belize.. The enemies of the Grey Breasted martins were small hawks and a small owl that could enter a 2 inch round hole ?But these enemies were not plentiful and rarely lost a nesting pair of martins..So the greatest difference in Purple martins and the Grey breasted martins..was the male of the Purple martin was a shiny black and the female has grey under parts.. The grey breasted male and female are hard to identify from each other by their color..

We estimated that 25 percent raised a second my colony grew older that went up to 30 percent..This accounted for the late departure of the middle of September..The early arrivals start coming in about January the first.. I have reports from the Mennonite people that they have both the Grey breasted and Purple martins nesting in their northern MEXICO home. They have never found them to inter breed.. This is not a

In the spring of 1975 we decided to move back to the states good old USA ..The formost reason was DDT.. It was law. And we could not comply.. The government kept on spraying DDT in the houses.. Even though the US had banned it in 1972.. Belize looked at DDT as a miracle drug that wiped out the mosquito and the deadly malaria was stopped from spreading?.

At that time April 1975 we already had 82 pair of Grey Breasted martins, and with a month of May for nesting we would almost certainly exceed 100 pair..
It was a sad day when our departure date arrived and we had to leave our flourishing beloved Grey-breasted martin colony behind. Needless to say there were some tears shed. It indeed was a blessing to have spent almost six martin seasons in Belize learning the habits of the Grey-breasted martins. On February 13, 1976 we moved to our present home in Finger, Tn. In 1976 we had three pair of Purple Martins and 2004 we had over 700 nesting pair of Purple Martins! What a blessing from God!

Victor Stoll
John Miller
Posts: 4778
Joined: Mon Mar 22, 2004 9:11 pm
Location: St. Louis, MO

Thanks Mr. Stoll for this fascinating account. Surely these are about the closest cousins to purple martins. I found some footnotes to PMCA founder Jamie Hill on a few very brief Internet search results, so I assume he has studied this birds.

John Miller
Dale Hrncirik


Thanks for sharing that very interesting story.

Got a question or two for ya...

Was the DDT sprayed only inside the homes or also outdoors?

If sprayed outdoors, it must've had a serious impact on local birds but yet your colony of martins flourished. Any explanation if this was the case? Did you see any other species of birds suffering from the effects of DDT?


JOHN AND DALE.. I will thank you for your respounse .. it didnt look like any one was interested in Grey breast martins.. I like the purple martin best..

It seems like the Belize Goverment did not know we were there.. they did find us in 1972 and it was the same time that a report came that DDT was outlawed in the US.. When I got the details. I said., No spraying my house wih DDT.. They sprayed inside of the houses in every room.. the walls ceiling,and the floors.. This was done every 6 months. They did not spray any where out side .. Just in the inside of houses..

I did not find any dead birds nor did any other folks that I heard of .,That was amazing... Have a nice day.. Victor
CUL Lou~Mich

Victor. I'm also glad you posted this account of your former life. I'm always interested in how things are done, or were done formerly. That includes folks lives. Knowing you, I'm sure there were more than a few tears shed when you had to leave the Grey Breasted Martins behind, but I'm glad you moved back. First of all, because of the DDT. I can remember when I was young, my step father had some insects (not sure what kind they were) on a small maple tree. He took a DDT sprayer, and sprayed the tree. For two years we thought the tree had been killed, then it started growing back. Instead of just a few side branches though, there were branches every inch or so shooting out. I've never again seen a Maple do that, and I'm sure it was the DDT that did it. Another reason I'm glad you moved, is because of your PM Colony. It's really a joy to be able to visit the colony, and your family, and the other lovers of PMs who gather at your place there in Finger Tn. every June. Thanks again for the article. CUL Lou
Bob Buskas
Posts: 600
Joined: Sat Nov 15, 2003 8:08 pm
Location: Wetaskiwin Alberta, Canada

Victor, the last 2 years I have been fortunate to vacation on the west coast of Mexico in January/February and on both occasions I have watched roosting Grey Breasted Martins come into trees very close to my Hotel Room about 6pm. One even bomb dived me as I was watching them from my balcony. Sometimes they would hang around untill about 10 am in the mornings before leaving for the day to feed. The first year I seen them I was sure it was a roost of Sub adult Purple Martins but Louise Chambers clued me in on the Grey Breasted Martins, she was right as usual. Watching them made my vacation even more fun than I had expected. :lol:
Bob Buskas, Alberta, Canada (The Northern Sky's Colony) Supplimental feeding is the key during bad weather, but you must train them to feed ahead of time.
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