Virtual Purple Martin Nest Checks

Maureen Barrett and Jessica Ashman - Teen Science Cafe Advisors
Harrington Middle School
HMS Teen Science Café


Picture of the nest gourds for purple martins

Purple martins “nest” in gourds high off the ground.

Nest with the purple martin eggs

Ms. Ashman tending to the purple martin nests.

Ah, the first sight of the nestlings

New born hatchling purple martin

A full nest of young purple martins


We held our last in school Teen Science Café event on March 5, 2020. This event focused on educating our members about Purple Martins, a species of swallow. Martins living in the eastern part of the United States almost exclusively nest in man-made housing. About 15 years ago, we established a Purple Martin colony in front of our school. Our martin setup consists of 24 plastic gourds hanging on poles. The gourd racks can be lowered to gain access to the gourds. At our March café event, the students learned all about this species, including the martins’ housing requirements and how to be good martin ‘landlords’. To prepare for the upcoming Purple Martin breeding season, the Teen Science Café students set up the gourds. Martins typically return to New Jersey around April 1st from their wintering grounds in Brazil. After setting up the gourds, we waited for the martin to arrive. Unfortunately, New Jersey schools closed on March 13th due to COVID-19, so we could no longer watch for our martins’ arrival. Students from our Teen Science Café club remained interested in the martins and concerned about their well-being.


“Hi Ms. Barrett! I had just realized that our Purple Martins have probably arrived (for the most part) and since our school is shut-down, there would be no Teen Science Café and no one to help out with the birds. Personally, I have a lot of free time, so I’d like to ask if you need any help studying and helping out with the bird. If my assistance is needed, I will make sure to socially distance myself from you and other potential helpers.”

Written by Teen Science Café member Derek in an email


“Dear Ms. Barrett, how are you doing? Are you checking on the Purple Martins? If you are, how are they doing? I was wondering if there was a way we could do our club online. We could talk about the birds and other scientific topics.”

Written by Teen Science Café member Sophie in an email



Hands on Activity


It was obvious that our students wanted to be good landlords and their interest didn’t waver even though they were thrown into a virtual learning environment. We wanted to provide our members some normalcy during the school shutdown, and our students wanted this, too. One student commented that he wanted to see each other’s faces – even if virtually.


We set up a Google Classroom to keep in touch with Teen Science Café members during the school closure. Teen Science Café member Daniel commented in our Google Classroom that he was worried for the martins when we were quarantined. Café member Derek commented in the classroom, “Am I allowed to invite people that were not in the group before?”  Derek wanted to get more students involved and his compassion for the Purple Martins was contagious. Sophie jumped in and asked, “Is there a limit to how many people can join? Also, will we be doing Google Meets?”  Before long, we had 31 students in the Teen Science Café Google Classroom.


We set up weekly virtual meetings through Google Meets so the students could see how the birds were doing. As good landlords, we needed to do ‘nest checks’. This is when we lower the gourds to look inside each one. Derek set up a data chart to keep track of what was going on – green leaves, number of eggs, number of young, etc. Students were excited to see small pieces of green leaves in the gourds because that was an indication that the females were about to lay eggs. By May 28, we had our first eggs! By June 18th, 21 of our 24 gourds were occupied with either baby martins or martin eggs.


During our Google Meets, the students asked thought-provoking questions. Questions were asked about the martins’ life span, vocalizations, when the young fledge, and if Purple Martins prefer a certain type of housing. We linked the Purple Martin Conservation Association website ( to our Google Classroom. The students used this accredited site to find their answers to these questions and more. We also consulted a local Purple Martin expert for answers not found on the Internet.


June 19th marked the end of our school year, but the students asked if we could continue the weekly virtual Google Meets throughout the summer months. This passion and thirst for learning was heartwarming. We continue to do our weekly nest checks and will do so until the martins begin their migration south.


Continuing our Teen Science Café program was a great idea. When we first created the Google Classroom, one student posted, “Hey Ms. Ashman, I thought this was cancelled! Glad it isn’t. :)”