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Purple Martin Story Inspires Award-Winning Student Project

Mark Moseley
Outdoor America 2023 Issue 3
Herndon Elementary student team

Over the past few years, some of my students at Herndon Elementary School in Virginia have built and maintained purple martin nesting towers at our school grounds and also at a nearby park. This team of students was inspired by Mike Bishop’s Outdoor America article, “Purple Martins: A Species that Depends on People,” (2021, issue 4).

Through that idea, our students discovered an authentic environmental problem they wanted to solve.

This student team developed and entered a purple martin proposal into the Caring for Our Watershed competition for the Chesapeake Bay region—and took a first place. On top of that, the proposal was adopted as the international idea for the 2022-23 school year and received full funding from sponsors Earth Force and Nutrien. Purple martin towers will be installed in Caring for Our Watershed regions internationally.

To help these birds thrive in other communities, we are now expanding the idea to assist others in building nesting towers. We are excited to continue to work with other schools along the birds’ migratory path to manage the towers. Mike Bishop, an Izaak Walton League member in Virginia, continues to support our students with this project.

As a teacher, I’m extremely proud of the way my students owned this project from the beginning. Some of their own observations follow.

Students Reflect on the Project

Emma F.

After we started the Purple Martin Project, I have been more attentive to types of birds and endangered species. Before this project, I never saw or recognized purple martins, European starlings and house sparrows. Now I can recognize the sound and look of purple martins flying above their tower. They bring me joy to see at our school.

Every time I see them I think: “We made a difference.” Purple martins now fly high above our school, thanks to us.

When I was little, I thought only older people could make a difference. Thanks to the Caring for Our Watershed contest and this project, my view has shifted. Kids can make a difference too.

Mia T.

With my experience, I learned things like respecting [the birds’] homes and how to take care of everything they need. I got inspired by Mike Bishop’s article, “Purple martins: A species that depends on people.” He talks about how purple martins’ homes are getting invaded by house sparrows and European starlings. We have seen at least four purple martins at our tower! I have learned so much working with the purple martin group!


From this year and the one before, my experience from the purple martins has been great. I have learned more about wildlife than just the purple martins. I have also met new people and worked along the way with them over the two years I have worked with the Eco Bees [the school’s environmental club]. The group is a great opportunity to learn about wildlife and the journey of the purple martins.

Emmett D.

With my experience, I have learned to respect wildlife and their habitats even more than I did before. I find it fascinating that the purple martins have found ways to survive even with the continuous loss of habitat. If society wants the purple martins to come back stronger than ever before, we must play a vital role in the process. It is my hope that more people get involved in the purple martin initiative.

How to Get Started

If you are interested in becoming a martin landlord, the Purple Martin Conservation Association has a wonderful website with useful information on martins and establishing a colony. The website includes a list of local or regional mentors who are glad to answer questions.

Purple martin colonies require maintenance to ensure they remain clean for every nesting season. The gourds are plastic and have a cleaning port. The steel or aluminum poles have racks that hold multiple individual gourds. The racks are affixed to a cable and pulley so they can raise and lower the gourds with a winch, which makes it easy to clean and maintain them.

The gourds have an entry hole designed to allow martins but prevent starlings from nesting—usually a crescent-shaped hole rather than a round hole typically found on bird houses.

Setting up and maintaining a purple martin colony offers a rewarding conservation project for Izaak Walton League chapters, schools, Scouts or master naturalist programs.

Top photo: The Herndon Elementary student team won an award for their purple martin project. Credit: Herndon Elemenary School.

Mark Moseley is a teacher at Herndon Elementary School in Northern Virginia.