The Purple Gallinule

Juvenile purple gallinule  -  photo by susan L. davenport

Juvenile purple gallinule  -  photo by susan L. davenport

The bird in the picture above is a juvenile American Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinicus). As an adult, the Purple Gallinule is one of the most brightly colored birds in North America, but they don’t start out that way.

 That juvenile was the first Purple Gallinule I had ever seen. Watching the colors shimmer across his feathers in the sunlight had me entranced in seconds; I could have spent hours watching him. He placed his big feet, with their long toes precisely, then shifted his weight from one leg to the other as he elegantly moved forward. It was like watching a ballet. Of course, at the time I didn’t realize he was moving across floating vegetation, I was simply in awe of his grace.

As we discuss this beautiful bird, I’m using the male pronoun, but the truth is that I don’t know whether this bird is a female or male because both genders have the same coloration. The males are slightly larger, but since I had nothing to compare my bird against, that knowledge didn’t help me.

When they are born, the chicks are dark; black or olive brown. Their eyes are brown, their beak and their forehead shield are dark olive. There are usually 4-10 eggs in the nest, and they hatch over a 3-4-day period. The chicks generally stay in the nest until all the eggs have hatched, but if there is a danger, they can leave the nest, swim, dive, or run for cover. They use tiny claws on their wing tips to crawl on bushes and out of the nest. The resources I’ve found disagree on how long the adults feed the chicks. Some say one week while others say 8-9 weeks. But these chicks grow up fast. They are capable of short flights by seven-weeks-old.

By around 10-weeks-old, the young Gallinules have changed, and look like the picture above. They are now three-quarters of adult size and capable of sustained flight. Smooth feathers have replaced their down. Their face, the sides of their neck, their breast and flanks are pale buff. Their crown, hind neck, and upperparts are brown with an olive-green sheen, and greenish turquoise glistens on their upper wings. Their eyes are brownish, and their legs are dull yellow.

Purple Gallinules are migratory birds. Most of them winter south of the Texas border in Central and South America. During their first winter migration, the juveniles gain their adult plumage. The upper parts of the bird are glossy green, with upper wings a shimmering turquoise-blue. Their underparts are a deep bluish-violet. Their head is purplish-blue, and their legs and their huge feet and long toes are orange-yellow. The bird in the picture below is probably not quite two-years-old because it hasn’t finished the final transformation.

adult purple gallinule  - photo by susan l. davenport

adult purple gallinule  - photo by susan l. davenport

By the time they are two years old, their transformation into an adult is complete. Their forehead shield becomes a pale blue. The top two-thirds of their beak is brilliant red, and the tip is bright yellow, almost as if the bird dipped his beak in a paint can. Amazingly, their eyes also change color, from brown at birth to a dark red. The oldest recorded Purple Gallinule was at least seven years, four months old. It was found in Florida in 1956. It had been banded there in 1950.

An adult Purple Gallinule is about the size of a chicken. It weighs 7-10 oz., with a wing span of around twenty-one inches. It is a “swamp hen” in the rail family, sometimes called a Yellow-legged Gallinule by locals. It is a wetland species which lives in freshwater marshes, lagoons, ponds, and swamps where there are reed beds and dense floating vegetation.  They have also been known to live in flooded fields, such as rice paddies.

While it is difficult for me to imagine shooting a bird this beautiful, the Purple Gallinule is considered a game bird. The hunting season for them starts after most of the birds have flown south for the winter, so they are the least taken game bird in North America. These birds also have a reputation for being unpalatable, except for those taken in the rice fields of Louisiana and South America, which are considered delicious when served on a bed of rice.

Purple Gallinule breed in warm swamps and marshes in the southeastern states of the United States and the tropical regions of Central America, the Caribbean, and northern South America. They spend the period from May through August in their breeding territory then travel south for winter.

These beautiful birds are monogamous, and there is a courting time before breeding. Courting behaviors include nibbling, bowing, billings, swaying, and the squat arch, which I think I’m going to have to see to understand. They establish a nesting territory and defend it. The adult birds work together to build the nest.

Their nests are floating structures, made from available aquatic plants, such as reeds, water hyacinth, cattails, or wild rice. It is not uncommon for a pair of birds to build several nests and then pick one of them for egg-laying. I suspect this is the Purple Gallinule equivalent of moving the couch several times until you get it right.

The eggs are smooth, pale creamy white to deep buff, speckled with small irregular spots of rich brown, laid one per day. Both parents take turns keeping the eggs warm for about 18-20 days. They follow a ritual when changing position; the bird coming to relieve its mate presents a leaf that is accepted by the incubating bird and added to the nest. 

Although the Purple Gallinule migrates for long distances, they are considered awkward flyers. Perhaps that is because when they are only flying a short distance, they let their long legs dangle. They fly slowly, with fast wing beats, and when they plan to do some serious flying, they pull their legs up.

As I wrote this blog post, I started considering the challenges that might occur as a Purple Gallinule matured. Food should be readily available in their preferred territories because they are omnivorous. They feed on seeds, leaves, and fruit, but they also consume insects, frogs, snails, spiders, earthworms, and fish. Nesting material should also be readily available because they use the vegetation of the marsh around them. Do you suppose they notice the dramatic changes that happen in their appearance over their lifetime? Can you imagine how startling that might be? I can…

The setting sun was warm on my back as I slipped through the golden stalks of dried marsh grass. Usually, that made me feel all happy inside, but not today. Today my thoughts were focused on the scene I’d just left, the family hunting trip.

My parents had decided it was time for us to learn to hunt our own food, so they’d herded the whole brood out of the nest and turned us loose on the poor, unsuspecting swamp. My brothers and sisters are never quiet, but their excitement at getting to go hunting made the noise even worse. Their incessant clucking scared away everything but the bright green stink bugs, so I ate one. “Yuck!”

Everyone, even my mom, laughed at me for eating that stink bug. My brothers chanted, “Egghead ate a stink bug. Egghead ate a stink bug…” It was horrible. I wanted the swamp to swallow me right up, but nothing was going the way I wanted. The teasing just got worse. Mom told them to quit, but they would wait until her back was turned and then make faces while mouthing the chant silently. I couldn’t stand it anymore.  When no one was looking, I slipped away.

Now I was alone. It was quiet, the way I liked it, and there were bugs all around me.  I was hungry, and I wanted to eat one of these bugs so badly. But I was afraid. What if they tasted worse than the stink bug?

I shuddered at the thought. No, I’d rather not eat than go through that again. I froze in place for a moment, watching the many different bugs fly around me. I could even smell them. A small red bug scented the air with spice as he winged by my beak. A round black beetle exuded the warm, muddy smell of the swamp as he scuttled by my foot. Yum, I bet he would be crunchy. A fat brown worm swayed as the wind gently blew the strand of silk suspending him. He was so squishy looking. If I bit him, the juice would probably run down my beak. I moved toward him without even realizing it. I was ready to snap him up when I remembered the stink bug. Ugh. How was I going to learn which bugs were good to eat if nobody was willing to tell me? Was I going to have to taste them all? Yuck! I decided to visit my friend. Maybe he could help me.

My friend lives at the end of a flattened peninsula of floating, tangled grasses. I spread my long toes wide, balancing, as I crossed the bobbing platform, then sank down on my belly next to the water’s edge and peered into the dark, fertile swamp water. A face appeared in the water below my eyes, and I called out to him. “Kek-kek. Hello, friend. I’ve been hunting, and you won’t believe how horrible it was.” I told my friend about my distressing day and how my family had laughed at me. He listened closely, never saying a word. My friend is a very good listener.

A Young Gallinule  -  Photo by Susan L. Davenport

A Young Gallinule  -  Photo by Susan L. Davenport

A small grebe swam up beside my floating grass mat, causing ripples in the water. My friend ran away. “Hey, Egghead. Who are you jabbering at?”

I sighed. Why had my parents given me such a stupid name? It was embarrassing. They had given my brothers and sisters nice names like Reed and Hyacinth, but I was Egghead. “I was talking to my friend, but you scared him away.”

The small diving bird stuck his head under the water, so deeply his tail pointed toward the sky, then popped back up, shaking the water drops off. “There’s nobody down there.”

“He was just here. Maybe he’ll come back if we’re still.”

“The sun’s going down. Not much hunting time left.”

“Just wait.”

The small grebe stilled, the ripples fading until the dark water became like a mirror reflecting the golden light of the sun and the dried marsh grasses on its bank. “There he is. See?” My friend’s face had materialized below me.

“You really are an egghead. That’s your reflection.”

How stupid does he think I am. “Kr-lik. I don’t look anything like that.”

“You look exactly like that. That’s you.”

“No.” I ruffled my feathers. “My feathers are dark and fluffy. My friend has tan feathers.”

The grebe chuckled. “You used to be a cute chick with dark, fluffy down and an olive-brown beak. I remember the day you hatched. A piece of shell stuck to your head. You wandered around the nest with that eggshell stuck to your head for hours.”

I rolled my eyes. I’d heard that story at least a thousand times more than I’d wanted to.

“But you’re not that cute little chick anymore. You’re growing up, and you’re changing.” He pointed to the face in the water with his beak. “You’re beginning to look more like your parents.”

I stared at my friend with his tan feathers, blue forehead shield, and reddening beak then tilted my head. The head in the water tilted too. The grebe was right. The face in the water was me. “I don’t want to grow up. Make it stop.”

“I can’t make it stop. No one can. Growing up is part of life.”

“But I can’t grow up. I’m not ready.” I was going to die from embarrassment before this day ended. “I ate a stink bug today.”

The grebe chortled. “I’ve known your parents a long time. Every year they take their new brood to where the stink bugs live for their first hunting trip. And every year one of the brood, usually the best hunter of the bunch, eats a stink bug.”

“You mean they did that to me on purpose?”

The grebe nodded. “Eating that stink bug didn’t hurt anything but your pride, and you learned a valuable lesson. Not all bugs are good to eat.”

“But now I’m hungry, and I’m afraid to eat anything.”

The grebe shook his head. “If you’d stayed with your parents they would have shown you which bugs are good.”

Was he right? Probably. I’d made a mess of everything today.

The grebe swam over to a lily pad floating nearby and nudged it over by my grass platform. “Use those big feet of yours and step out on that lily pad.”

I stood, then gently stepped onto the lily pad, spreading my long toes and shifting my weight carefully from one leg to the other, distributing my weight.

“Now I want you to lift the edge of the lily pad.”

“While I’m standing on it?”

“Just do it and quit arguing. You’re wasting time.”

I sighed, then grabbed the edge of the lily pad with my beak, rolling it back. There were all kinds of bugs under it. I put my foot on the edge of the lily pad to hold it in place. “Look at all the bugs.”

“The brown ones are the best. Try one.”

He was right. It was crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle, with a warm, savory flavor. “Yum. It’s so good.” I grabbed another one and then another, only stopping when my belly was satisfyingly full, and all the little brown bugs were a pleasant aftertaste.

I glanced around. The grebe had disappeared, and the light was fading as nighttime approached. “I’d better get home or Mom will be mad.” I stepped off the lily pad and hurried through the marsh grass toward home. Maybe growing up wouldn’t be so bad after all.