1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Martin (bird)

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MARTIN[1] (Fr. Martinet), the Hirundo urbica of Linnaeus and Chelidon urbica of modern ornithologists, a bird well known throughout Europe, including even Lapland, where it is abundant, retiring in winter to the south of Africa. It also inhabits the western part of Asia, and appears from time to time in large flocks in India. The martin (or house-martin, as it is often called, to distinguish it from the sand-martin) commonly reaches its summer quarters a few days later than the Swallow (q.v.), with which it is often confused in spite of the differences between them, the martin's white rump and lower parts being conspicuous as it flies or clings to its nest attached to houses. This nest, made of the same material as the swallow's, is, however, a more difficult structure to rear, and a week or more is often occupied in laying its foundations — the builders clinging to the wall while depositing the mud of which it is composed. The base once fixed, the superstructure is often quickly added, till the whole takes the shape of the half or quarter of a hemisphere, and is finished with a lining of feathers mixed with a few bents or straws. The martin builds soon after its return, and a nest that has outlasted the winter is almost at once re-occupied. The bird usually in the course of the summer raises a second, or rarely a third, brood of offspring — though the latest broods often die in the nest, apparently through failure of food. What seem to be adults are observed in England every year so late as November, and sometimes within a few days of the winter solstice, but these late birds are almost certainly strangers.

The sand-martin, Hirundo riparia of Linnaeus and Cotile riparia of modern writers, differs much in appearance and habits from the former. Its smaller size, mouse-coloured upper surface and jerking flight distinguish it from the other British Hirundinidae; but it is seldom discriminated, and, being the first of the family to return to its northern home, the so-called “early swallow” is nearly always of this species. Instead of the clay-built nest of the house-martin, this bird bores horizontal galleries in an escarpment. When beginning its excavation, it clings to the face of the bank, and with its bill loosens the earth, working from the centre outwards, and often hanging head downwards. The tunnel may extend to 4, 6, or even 9 ft. The gallery seems intended to be straight, but inequalities of the ground, and especially the meeting with stones, often causes it to take a sinuous course. At the end is formed a nest lined with a few grass-stalks and feathers. The sand-martin has several broods in the year, and is more regular than other Hirundinidae in its departure for the south. The kind of soil needed for its nesting habits makes it somewhat local, but no species of the order Passeres has a geographical range that can compare with this. In Europe it is found nearly to the North Cape, and thence to the Sea of Okhotsk. In winter it visits many parts of India and South Africa to the Transvaal. In America its range extends (having due regard to the season) from Melville Island to Caiçara in Brazil, and from Newfoundland to Alaska.

The purple martin of America, Progne purpurea, is a favourite in Canada and the United States. Naturally breeding in hollow trees, it readily adapts itself to the nest-boxes which are commonly set up for it; but its numbers are in some years and places diminished in a manner unexplained. The limits of its range in winter are not determined, chiefly owing to the differences of opinion as to the validity of certain supposed kindred species found in South America; but according to some authorities it reaches the border of Patagonia, while in summer it is known to inhabit lands within the Arctic Circle. The male is almost wholly of a glossy steel-blue, while the female is duller in colour above, and beneath of a brownish-grey.

Birds that may be called martins occur almost all over the world except in New Zealand, which is not regularly inhabited by any member of the family. The ordinary martin of Australia is the Petrochelidon nigricans of most ornithologists, and another and more beautiful form is the ariel or fairy-martin of the same country, Petrochelidon ariel. This last builds a bottle-shaped nest of mud, as does also the rock-martin of Europe, Cotile rupestris. The eggs of martins are from four to seven in number, and generally white, while those of swallows usually have brown, grey or lilac markings.

((A. N.))

  1. The older English form, martlet (French, Martelet), is, except in heralds' language, almost obsolete, and when used is now applied in some places to the Swift (q.v.). The bird called martin by French colonists in the Old World is a mynah (Acridotheres). (See Grackle.)