Speaking of Nature: The purple gallinule
March 18 — “When I woke up this morning (which was at 3 a.m., by the way) the wind was howling and the temperature outside was a punitive 7 degrees. Now, at just about 1 p.m., I’m sitting in the Lanai at Fran’s house and enjoying a beautiful afternoon in the 60s. Gone are the heavy coat and long sleeves! I recline in shorts, a T-shirt and bare feet. I have traded redpolls and juncos for a sleeping pelican dozing on a piling in the pond out back. I am here for five days and I am going to enjoy them!”
Who wouldn’t find that scene appealing? Warmth, greenery and life everywhere you look. And we can have all of that here if it would just stop snowing. The migrant birds are already starting to return (see my Web site for a running record of arrivals). Turkey vultures, mixed flocks of blackbirds and even killdeer are all back in my neighborhood. I’ve even heard stories of woodcocks displaying in wet fields at lower elevations. The skunk cabbage plants have already flowered and are even pushing up leaves. Everyone is getting impatient.
With Easter just a few days away, many of us probably have visions of spring in our heads. Rabbits, flowers and bright, cheery colors. I decided that I wanted to write about something that was equally colorful, so I sat back and tried to think of the gaudiest bird I had photos of. And wouldn’t you know that my recent trip to Florida provided me with photos of just such a creature? So, taking a stand against cold and snow, I give to you the purple gallinule.
Also known as the “blue Peter” or the “marsh hen,” the purple gallinule (Porphyrula martinica) can arguably be identified as the gaudiest bird native to North America. The painted bunting (Passerina ciris) draws from a similar color palette, but does not have the brilliant yellow that the gallinule sports on its legs and feet. The male wood duck (Aix sponsa) might also be a contender, but lacks the sheer surface area bedecked in primary colors to really give the gallinule a serious challenge. No, for my money, the purple gallinule is the king of gaudy.
My beautiful wife, Susan, was absolutely floored when she caught sight of this bird. A magnified image through the viewfinder of my camera only magnified her reaction. But when it comes to color, it is hard to find any feathers that really stand out as being purple. Perhaps the name “indigo gallinule” would have been a better match to the real colors.
The scientific name for this species has a lot going on. The genus name “Porphyrula” is a combination of the Greek word “porphyreos,’ which means “purple,” and the Latin suffix “-ula,” which mans, “little.” I also found another Greek word, “porphyrion,” that means, “water hen.” This may suggest that there was a bird known as the “water hen” and that the purple gallinule was smaller. That remains a little confusing. On the other hand, the species name “martinica,” is simply a Latinized version of the name Martinique, which is an island in the Lesser Antilles where the bird was first found.
I am currently delivering a series of lectures on taxonomy and classification to my students and we are discussing the problems associated with common names. A coincidental example can be found with the name purple gallinule. In Africa and Asia there is another member of the rail family — the purple swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) — that is also called a purple gallinule. It resembles our gallinule, but I think our bird is more attractive.
Being a rail makes this bird’s life fairly easy to predict. Rails love water and they specialize in what is known as emergent vegetation. They are small, plump-looking birds when seen from the side, but when seen head on, you see that they are rather slim. This is called “lateral compression” and it is similar to the idea of putting a fat bird in a vise and slowly squeezing it flat on the sides. A sunfish is an example of a fish that exhibits lateral compression.
This goes in keeping with the phrase, “thin as a rail,” which actually makes a lot of sense when you consider that rails like to skulk around in the thick vegetation that grows at the edges of wetlands. Rails are so fundamentally attached to this habitat that they even build floating nests in water that may be 4 to 10 feet deep. The nests are usually anchored to some of that emergent vegetation to prevent the nest from drifting out into the open.
I have also included a photo that shows the amazing legs and feet of this species. Bright yellow and long, the toes of purple gallinules are perfectly designed for giving the bird tremendous support while walking across the top of vegetation that may be partially floating on the water. Like a pair of big yellow snowshoes, the gallinules feet spread out the bird’s weight an allow it access to areas that other wading birds might not be able to reach.
When I was down in Florida, the breeding season was just getting under way. There was a great deal of energy and hostility between pairs of gallinules that were trying to stake claims to nesting territories. I think I could best describe the sound of this combat by telling you to imagine about 30 small children (3 to 4 years old) that have just been given small tin horns to play with. Gallinules are loud both figuratively and literally.
Gallinules can also be quite violent. When I was taking photos, I also happened to witness a fight between two gallinules. It’s an action photo, which means it’s just a little blurry because of the rapid motion of the birds, but you can see droplets of water frozen in the air. It also shows the rather formidable set of weapons a pair of big feet can become if used in anger. The bird on the right does not seem to be enjoying a face full of feet. The most alarming thing about this conflict, however, was the fact that there were many alligators in the vicinity and these birds were both terribly vulnerable while in the middle of this fight.
By the time the schools close for Spring Break, the gallinules down in Florida may be the proud parents of gallinule chicks. If you find yourself in Florida for the upcoming vacation, I would strongly suggest you find yourself a natural area and peek in on the gallinules that may live there. They have lives as colorful as their plumage and it would be time well spent.
Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit