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Speaking of Nature: The colorful eye-catcher

  • The purple gallinule, a tropical bird, exhibits particularly colorful feathers and features, as well as enormous feet that help it walk on top of soft mud. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson


For the Recorder
Published: 1/7/2019 6:00:25 AM

I wasn’t quite sure how to start off 2019. As is often the case, 2018 ended with a great deal of celebration and not even a smidgen of thought or planning for the following day.

When I woke up on the first morning of 2019, I didn’t have the faintest idea what I would write about. All I wanted was coffee. I allowed the question of what to write for my first column to go unanswered.

The next day I had to go to work, and there really wasn’t time to think of anything but my classes and my students. I came home from work, worn out and still suffering from too little sleep in the final days of 2018, and still without a topic to write about. My beautiful wife, Susan, finally saved me by suggesting I pick something colorful and beautiful. Then she told me to write about what I have come to conclude is her favorite bird. So, this column is all for Susan.

Whenever I write about a North American bird, I try to imagine the experience of the first person to lay eyes on the species. In almost every case, I have to remind myself that the first people were almost certainly not European. The continent of North America was full of people long before Europeans arrived, but perhaps because I myself am of European descent, I eventually wonder about the first European to see a species in the New World.

The Vikings certainly made inroads along the northern coast of North America and they would naturally have seen a great variety of birds as they explored farther and farther west. However, I think a good portion of the birds that they saw would have been species that were the same as, or at least very similar to, ones they were already familiar with.

As an example, my mind is drawn to the herring gull (Larus argentatus). If you find this species in a field guide to North American birds, you will find the same Latin name that is used for the European herring gull in almost every case. Only recently has the North American variety been classified as Larus argentatus smithsonianus — a subspecies of the European herring gull.

I like to think of myself as a fairly experienced birder, but I must confess that I don’t have as much experience in dealing with gulls and other birds of the coasts. However, even a Viking, a person who lived a coastal life and saw this bird on a daily basis, might have been unable to differentiate between the European herring gull and its close cousin, the American herring gull.

However, other Europeans “discovered” the New World by heading west at lower latitudes. Some of these people made landfall in the Caribbean and I can’t help but think that the birds of the subtropics must have made quite an impression on them. I know that my first visit to Florida was a real jaw-dropper and I am absolutely certain that it opened Susan’s eyes wide. I will never forget the first time Susan saw a purple gallinule (Porphyrio martinicus) because that was the day it became her favorite bird.

This is a species unlike anything we normally see here in New England. This bird is absolutely covered with color and some of the feathers on the bird’s back are the rich, vibrant green of tropical vegetation. Green is not a color often seen in the feathers of birds of the northern latitudes, so it really gets your attention.

The purple gallinule is a bird of emergent wetlands. One of the most striking features of this species is its enormous feet, which are the tropical equivalent of snowshoes. Imagine a bird that spends its time exploring the plants that grow in relatively deep water. Extremely long toes that can fan out across a large area are more likely to find support that is sufficient to keep the bird from sinking into the water. Similarly, those toes will help the bird walk on top of soft mud, rather than getting stuck. It all makes a great deal of sense, but it is still a real shocker when you see those giant yellow feet for the first time.

Perhaps what leaves the biggest impression is the color of this bird’s feathers. Starting with a deep violet blue (the purple of the purple gallinule), the feathers shift to indigo, blue and green with all sorts of gorgeous combinations in between the primary colors. Add in a splash of yellow with the legs and feet, and an accent of bright red on the bird’s beak, and you’ve basically covered all of the colors of the rainbow.

I am busy making plans for my 2019 nature excursions, and the bright colors of the purple gallinule are definitely inspiring me to get out and see all sorts of gorgeous plants and animals. To be perfectly honest, however, I am also looking forward to our first big snowstorm of the year and the gorgeous sight of the black and white world of winter. There is beauty of all sorts in our futures and I can’t wait so share it with you.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 21 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and Massachusetts State Parks, and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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