The Myth of Purple Martins and Mosquitoes

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One of the most popular myths about Purple Martins is that they consume approximately 2,000 mosquitoes a day.

One of the most popular myths about Purple Martins is that they consume approximately 2,000 mosquitoes a day.  This statistic has been used for decades by companies selling Purple Martin houses in order to bolster sales. In fact, the Purple Martin rarely, if ever, consumes mosquitoes.  The continued promulgation of the Purple Martin mosquito myth is due partly to propaganda and partly to bad science.


Purple Martin Eating Habits

When examining whether or not Purple Martins could possibly consume large amounts of mosquitoes, the first thing to look at is their unique eating habits.  Purple Martins consume almost all of their food in the air.  They tend to fly at loft elevations too, sometimes as high as 300 feet.  Mosquitoes, on the other hand, tend to fly at much lower elevations, around bushes and shrubs.

More importantly,  most mosquitoes don't come out until dust.  Purple Martins consume most of their food during the day and, like most avian species, usually return to their nests for sleep around dust.  For this reason, there is very little potential for the two species to interact.

Scientific Data on Purple Martin Diets

However, much more compelling than the circumstantial evidence, which points to the unlikeliness of these two species interacting, is the wealth of scientific data that rejects the conclusion that Purple Martins feast on mosquitoes.  On numerous occasions over the last century, the stomachs of Purple Martins have been dissected for evidence of their food consumption.  These investigations have repeatedly shown that mosquitoes are a very negligible part of the diet of a Purple Martin,  which primarily consists of insects such as dragonflies, house flies and other flying insects.

purple martin
Purple Martin

Where did the myth originate?

According to a report by the Purple Martin Conservation Association, the origin of the confusion was a paper authored by J.L. Wade in 1966.  When writing about the Purple Martin's rapid metabolism, Wade made the assumption that the bird must consume its weight in mosquitoes on a daily basis to sustain itself.  Though he found no evidence of this from examining the stomach contents of Purple Martins, he suggested that because digestion of soft-shelled insects is almost instantaneous, that remnants of mosquitoes would not remain.  

Although mosquitoes are digested quickly, hard parts, such as the wings and legs, would be intact and findable in stomach contents or feces.  It was because of this poor scientific assumption that a myth was born and passed on for years to come.

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