Cuban Martin

Content for this page researched and created by John D. Tsambis

A martin species in flight
Photo by David Ascanio

The Cuban Martin belongs to the order Passeriformes and the family Hirundinida (Carolina Birds).  This family consists of martins and swallows who share the trait of feeding during flight (Carolina Birds).  Martins usually have a tail that has more of a square shape while the swallows tend to have more of a forked-tail but other than this, the two are considered scientifically identical (Carolina Birds).  Varying subspecies of these birds are most often found in cities and suburban areas on every continent except Antarctica (Carolina Birds).  It is theorized that this species origins lie in Africa and have evolved from hole-nesters (Carolina Birds).

Purple Martins perched on a dead tree. One is eating a dragon fly.
Photo by J. Phillip O’Brien

The Cuban Martins Latin name is Progne cryptoleuca (Hellmayr).  Historically, a lot of confusion surrounds this bird due to its almost identical appearance, behavior, and geographic location to the Purple Martin and the White-Bellied Caribbean Martin.  In fact, it was at first thought to be a Caribbean Martin (R. Terry Chesser) because of its seemingly identical appearance and behavior (Hellmayr). Then it was thought to be closely related to the Purple Martin because of the Cuban Martins similar purple feathers but further molecular analysis suggests that it is more closely related to the White-Bellied Caribbean Martin (Sheldon).  This made it very difficult to identify in the field but further molecular analysis suggests that it is in fact genetically distinct as its own species (Moyle) and was officially considered its own species in 1983 (Robert S. Ridgely).

A Caribbean Martin perched on a wire
Photo by Mike’s Birds

Cryptoleuca (from the Cuban Martins Latin name Progne cryptoleuca) means hidden white.  It received its name because of the males’ hidden white rings on the lower abdomen feathers (Bent).  This is also the only distinguishable feature between the male Purple Martin and the male Cuban Martin (Bent).  And the rest of the adult male’s coat is a glossed dark blueish-black (or a dark purple). But unlike the adult male, the adult female Cuban Martin has a greyish brown body with very distinct white feathers through the chest, abdomen, and lower abdomen (Bent).  It is essentially impossible to distinguish the female Cuban Martins from the Caribbean Martins (Hellmayr) but it is reported that they can be distinguished based on the underpart pattern (Hayes).  These white feathers stand out against the grayish brown feathers of the rest of its body (Bent) and stops abruptly rather than a gradual fade like the Carribean Martin (Hayes).  All the young of the Cuban Martin have a greyish brown body (Peters).  Some similar characteristics shared between all ages of the Cuban Martin are their dark eyes and small dark bill (Bird Fellow).  Also the tails of the Cuban Martin are long, dark and forked unlike most Martins (Bird Fellow).  Being on the larger side for swallows, their wings are relatively broad and long measuring approximately 150 mm or more (Hellmayr).

The Cuban Martin is largely a communal bird, nesting together in partially dispersed colonies.  Couples will, however, occasionally be found nesting away from the community (Latta).  The Cuban Martin lays three to six white eggs in their breeding season and incubates them for around fifteen days until hatched (Peters).  Once hatched the birds still completely rely on their mother for food for another month (Peters).

A Caribbean Martin in flight
Photo by Ron Knight

Their nests are primarily constructed of a variety of grasses, twigs, and leaves (Turner).  They prefer to nest in open areas near water on an overlook (Turner).  Cliffs and tall trees with hollowed out tree cavities are ideal (Hotspot Birding) but most encounters with these birds are in cities and urban areas (Barbour).  In an artificial environment they still prefer overlooks like they would in a natural environment so they flock towards bridges and tall buildings like churches (Schulenberg).  They are seen nesting all over cities and have proven to be very curious.  In one report, it was noticed one had been following an observer’s boat for half an hour (Danforth).  And in another report, Barbour states that they especially preferred the tall crosses on Latin churches (Barbour).  He also states that because of this, the locals have transferred the legend of the crossbill to the legend of the Cuban Martin (Barbour).

As an endemic breeder it arrives in Cuba and the Isle of Pines in February and leaves in October (Schulenberg). The breeding season is throughout April to August (Turner). The Cuban Martin will then leave Cuba during the winter (Robert).  Where they go during the winter is largely unknown and is left up to speculation (Kirwan).  South America seems to be the most likely destination but there is no evidence to support this (Robert).  In the spring migration they have been found in Jamaica and Guatemala (Bent).  Because of the mystery that surrounds its winter habitat, the Cuban Martin is hypothesized to have a large habitat range (Bird Life International).  They were even found as far north as Florida but these cases were considered accidents because only two specimens have been found there (Banks). The Cuban Martin is not a threatened species and has a stable population (Bird Life International) most likely due to the fact it will readily live in cities.

A purple martin on a branch with leaves
Photo by Robert Nunnally

Like all Martins the Cuban Martin hunts its prey in flight (R. Terry Chesser).  But have also been observed as ground foragers, picking up insects crawling on the ground (Hotspot Birding).  Examination of stool has shown the diet of the Cuban Martin and it mostly consists of beetles but other bugs in the suborder Heteroptera and order Odonata have also been found (Turner).  In flight they alternately flap and glide, occasionally swooping in to grab a flying insect or will fly low over water and scoop some up with their mouth to drink (Bird Fellow).  The Cuban Martin doesn’t have any specialized predators but its remains have been documented in some owl species pellets (Hellmayr).  Its main competitor however is the house sparrow, which competes for nesting locations in cities and consequently food in those areas (Hellmayr).  In natural environments, though, there is not nearly as much competition with the house sparrow since it primarily lives in urban areas (Hellmayr).  As a communal bird the Cuban Martin has a variety of calls that allow it to communicate among its species.  However, there has not been much research regarding the Cuban Martins calls other than its supposed warning and vocalization call of a gurgley “chew chew” (Latta).


Scientific References:

Banks, Richard C. “The Cuban Martin in Florida.” Florida Field Naturalist. (2000): 50-52. Web. Google Scholar. 29 Sept. 2015.

Barbour Thomas. 1923. “The Birds of Cuba”. Mem. Nutall Ornithology. (2000). Web. Google Scholar. 2 November 2015.

Danforth, Stuart T. “Birds Observed in the Vicinity of Santiago De Cuba.” Wilson Ornithological Society 40.3 (1928): 181. Web. Google Scholar. 1 Dec. 2015

Hayes, William K., White, Anthony W., “A Record of Cuban/Caribbean Martin (Progne cryptoleuca/dominicensis) for the Bahamas.” Loma Linda University: Department of Earth and Biological Sciences 59.4 (2005): 672-673. Web. Google Scholar. 2 Nov. 2015.

Hellmayr. C. E. “Catalogue of Birds of the Americas and Adjacent Islands”. Zoological Series, Field Museum of Natural History 13 (1935): 1-541. Web. Google Scholar. 29 Sept. 2015

Kirwan, Guy M., Kirkconnell, Arturo. “El Pitirre”. Society of Caribbean Ornithology. 15.3 (2002): 101-110. Web. Google Scholar. 2 November 2015.

Moyle, Robert G., Beth Slikas, Linda A. Whittingham, David W. Winkler, and Frederick H. Sheldon. “DNA Sequence Assessment of Phylogenetic Relationships Among New World Martins” The Wilson Journal of Ornithology (2008): 683-691. Web. Google Scholar. 29 Sept. 2015.

Terry Chesser, Richard C. Banks, F. Keith Barker, Carla Cicero, Jon L. Dunn, Andrew W. Kratter, Irby J. Lovette, Pamela C. Rasmussen, J. V. Remsen, Jr., James D. Rising, Douglas F. Stotz and Kevin Winker. Fifty-First Supplement to the American Ornithologists’ Union Check-List of North American Birds. Vol. 127, No. 3. American Ornithologists’ Union, July 2010. Web. Google Scholar. 29 Sep. 2015.

Sheldon Frederick H., Whittingham Linda A., Moyle Robert G., Silkas Beth, Winkler David W. “Phylogeny of Swallows (Aves: Hirundinidae) Estimated From Nuclear and Mitochondrial DNA Sequences.” Elsevier 35.1 (2005): n. pag. Web. Google Scholar. 1 Dec. 2015

Todd Walter, Edmond Clyde. “The Birds of the Isle of Pines”. Andrew Carnegie Museum. Vol. 10 (1916): 146-296.  Web. Google Scholar. 2 November 2015.

General References:

Bent, Cleveland. Life Histories of North American Flycatchers, Larks, Swallows, and Their Allies. New York: Dover Publications, 1963. Web.

Carolina Birds. Birds of the World-An Online Bird Book. n.d. Web. 2 Nov. 2015

Cuban Martin. Bird Fellow. 2015. Web. 29 Sep. 2015

Cuban Martin Progne cryptoleuca. Bird Life International. 2015. Web. 29 Sep. 2015.

Cuban Martin (Progne cryptoleuca). Hotspot Birding. 2015. Web. 29 Sep. 2015

Ekstrom, J., Butchart, S. Progne cryptoleuca. BirdLife International: The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012. 2012. Web. 29 Sep. 2015

Hellmayr, Catalogue of birds of the Americas Part VIII. Field Museum of Natural History. 1935. Web. 29 Sep. 2015.

Latta, S., C. Rimmer, A. Keith, J. Wiley, H. Raffaele, K. McFarland, and E. Fernandez. Birds of the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Princeton University Press. 2006. Web. 29 Sep. 2015

Peters, J. L. 1960. Check-List of Birds of the World. Volume IX. Pages 80-129. Museum of Comparative Zoology, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Robert S. Ridgely. The Birds of South America: Volume 1: The Oscine Passerines. University of Texas Press, 1989. Web.

Schulenberg, T. S. Progne cryptoleuca. Neotropical Birds Online. 2010. Web. 29 Sep. 2015

Turner A. J., Elliott A., Sargatal J., and Christie J. Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Barcelona: Lynx Eiions, 2014. Web.


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(Use via Creative Commons)

  1. Caribbean Martin in flight (R. Knight)
  2. Purple Martins on a dead tree (J. Phillip O’Brien)
  3. Purple Martin on a branch with leaves (R. Nunnally)

Permission from David Ascanio:

  1. Cuban Martin in flight (D. Ascanio)

Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Project. Web. 3 Dec., 2015 <.>

(Use via Creative Commons)

  1. Caribbean Martin sitting on a wire (Mike’s Birds)