As we ring in a royal New Year, we might as well go purple! This bird may very well be a new one for you. So, let me introduce the rarely seen in this area, Purple Gallinule. The Purple Gallinule, also known as a Water Hen, is a beautifully colored, wetlands bird found mostly in southern Florida and the tropics. American gallinules usually winter in Argentina or Brazil, but singles are known to stray off course occasionally, especially when migrating after breeding season. Purple Gallinules are one of the most frequent American marsh birds to wander and despite appearing very clumsy in flight, can find themselves as far away as South Africa. Who knows how or why that happens? Maybe a visit to see their larger species cousin the Swamp Hen was in order. In North Carolina, the Clapper Rail is close kin. Even knowing their propensity to roam, it was still a surprise to admit an injured Purple Gallinule to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter recently and just as unexpected for the Good Samaritan caller to know the identity of the bird she found walking on a road in Emerald Isle. To be totally honest, the transporter did volunteer at our shelter in Newport years ago, before her work schedule became too tight, and we do train them well! A paved road is not natural habitat, so she knew as soon as she saw the gangly but gorgeous bird limping along that the PG was in trouble and quickly theorized the gallinule had probably been clipped by a car. After an examination at the shelter revealed a fractured femur, our evaluation and assessment was the same. Where you would see this magnificent, multi-colored bird of the rail family is walking on top of floating vegetation or awkwardly high stepping through dense shrubs rather than on a roadway. Extensive wetlands with still or slow-moving shallow water, lots of dense marsh cover with plant life buoyed by water describes their habitat best. This slight of weight bird with extremely long toes is capable of standing on floating lily pads without sinking. The unusual Purple Gallinule swims on the surface of water like a duck but walks on those floating plants like a chicken. Although they are called “Purple” G’s, they are such a rainbow of colors, one might think they are more parrot than rail. Purple is the dominant adult color, but you will also see a green back, red triangular bill tipped with yellow, a fleshy plate of light blue on their forehead, white under the tail, bright yellow legs (one of the reasons they are locally known as Yellow-Legged Gallinules) and big yellow, non-webbed feet and long toes which they not only use for sprinting but to hold their food while eating. Those toes are also capable of the manual dexterity it takes to flip over lily pads to find prey underneath or to climb bushes or trees to find food. Both sexes of adults sport the same stunning plumage and physical appearance. Downy chicks are black and as juveniles, they turn a buffy tan with some dull colorations just starting to vividly bloom. Adults measure 10-15 inches in length, span 20-24 inches across their wings and weigh between 5–10 ounces with females averaging the fuller weight. Gallinules fly only short distances and let their legs dangle rather than hold them straight as an arrow like egrets or herons do. Purple Gallinules are omnivorous, therefore, along with consuming a wide variety of plants, seeds and fruits; insects, frogs, snails, spiders, earthworms, eggs and fish round out their diet. Clambering noisily through marshes and waterside trees while squawking, cackling and using their guttural grunts, the Purple Gallinule will flick its short tail anxiously as it forages for food. With its strong legs and long toes, the PG runs around on open shorelines aggressively in search of provisions (not quite the secretive and stealth hunter his cousin the Clapper Rail is). Purple Gallinules are the most inquisitive of the rail family, almost to the point of being inappropriately curious which can get them into trouble. They appear bold and eager, rather than cautious, when exploring something new in their environment with seemingly no regard for their own safety. During breeding season, which can be any time in the tropics but only Spring and Summer in North America, both Purple Gallinule parents build their bulky nest, comprised of cattails, grasses and sedges, anchored firmly to floating structures in a marsh at water level or 1 to 3 feet above it. Between 5 and 10 tan eggs with brown spots will be laid and incubated by both parents for 22-25 days. After hatching, the young will be fed by the parents and assisted by other gallinules, sometimes as many as 8. It is believed that these feeding helpers are previous offspring and that the assistance is needed because the parents have a second nest of eggs or hatchlings they must attend to. Juvenile gallinules of less than 10 weeks of age have been known to feed baby chicks. The youngsters start to eat on their own after 7-10 days and are capable of flight around the 9th week. A Purple Gallinule’s longevity is up to 22 years, as long as it can stay alert and outwit boas in the tropics and alligators and turtles in North America. Although this species is not considered globally threatened, their numbers have decreased due to aerial spraying of pesticides and wetland loss in the United States as well as in South and Central America. If you ever come across a brilliantly colored Purple Gallinule that looks a little more like a Disney character than wildlife, you are not hallucinating!! They do exist, but not usually here. The one you are seeing is probably migrating or just in the mood to roam!
HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYONE!!!!
Linda Bergman-Althouse author of “Save Them All“