Phil Donahue's colony of purple martins now at Audubon in Milford

There are some rather famous birds at the Connecticut Audubon Coastal Center in Milford: a purple martin colony established by Phil Donahue, the film producer and former TV host, and his wife, Marlo Thomas.
For more than a decade, Donahue maintained a colony of purple martins at his home in Westport, according to a Connecticut Audubon website.
“Phil solicited our help, and each spring we would work with him to make sure the gourds were clean and ready to go,” Audubon officials say on the website. “We’d monitor the success of the nests throughout the season. And in fall, after the martins had migrated, we’d help clear them and prepare them for the next year.
“Phil was enthralled with the martins,” according to the site. “He thought others would be as enthusiastic and so he created Gazebo Phil, a website that featured live streaming video of the martin colony.”
The wildlife experts at the Audubon credit Donahue for raising awareness about the birds.
According to, purple martins (Progne subis) are the largest member of the swallow family in North America, measuring 7.5 inches long and weighing 1.9 ounces.
Three races are recognized: Progne subis subis, breeding in eastern North America and eastern Mexico; Progne subis hesperia, breeding in the deserts of Arizona, western Mexico, and Baja California; and Progne subis arboricola, breeding along the Pacific coast of the United States and Canada, and in the Rocky Mountains.
“Purple martins spend the non-breeding season in Brazil then migrate to North America to nest,” according to “East of the Rockies they are totally dependent on human-supplied housing. West of the Rockies and in the deserts they largely nest in their ancestral ways, in abandoned woodpecker nest cavities. In the Pacific Northwest, martins are beginning to use gourds and clusters of single-unit boxes for nesting.”
Local Audubon officials said that thanks in great part to the publicity Donahue’s birds generated, individuals, nonprofit organizations and government agencies erected more nest boxes and gourds.
“Where there were seven in 2002 when the first Gazebo Phil colony went up, now there are more than three dozen purple martin colonies in Connecticut,” according to the Audubon website.
When Donahue and Thomas moved from Westport last year, they asked their friends at the Audubon — primarily Milan Bull, the Audubon’s senior director of science and conservation — if they would take over the colony and move it to Milford Point. They funded the move as well as a new digital streaming arrangement, which allows people to get a firsthand look at the birds.
(See the birds live at

There is an interior view of one of the gourds and viewers can see the hole through which the birds enter and exit. About a week ago they were building their nest and could be seen coming and going during the day.
“During the middle of the day, when most birds are out hunting insects, there may be little or no activity around the gourds,” the website states. “Purple martins feed on aerial insects, which are often caught in the rising thermal air currents that can carry them miles above the ground. The martins follow their food, and may feed so high that they can’t be seen against the blue sky. Most activity at the site tends to take place early or late in the day.”
Audubon officials say that martins are the one species nesting in Connecticut that truly need help from humans. A threatened species here, they nest only in human-made structures, either boxes or gourds.
“Our colony is at the north edge of the Wheeler salt marsh — we encourage you to see it in person, from the observation deck near the Coastal Center’s parking lot,” the website states. “Purple martins need open areas rich in aerial insect life. In Connecticut, that usually means coastal salt marshes, but there are a few inland colonies as well, usually on farmland near a large body of water.”
Purple martins usually arrive in Connecticut toward the end of the first week in April. Small numbers of male scouts are the first to scope out traditional and new nesting colonies, and they are joined later in the month by the majority of colony members.
“Martins remain through August, with a few lingering into the third week in September. Nesting colonies are often quite active early and late in the day,” Audubon officials said.