6th Bird of Christmas: Purple Gallinule

31 Dec

I mentioned in yesterday’s entry that my favorite color is yellow. Well, my second favorite color is purple… and another of my favorite water birds found in Costa Rica is the American Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinica). Unlike most of the birds in this series, this bird can also be found in the southeastern US, which is where I had an endearing experience that won me over as a fan for life.

Gallinules – or “swamp hens” as they are often colloquially called – are in the rail family Rallidae, and although they are almost always on the water, will rarely swim at all. They rather scramble awkwardly through thickets and tall reeds, walk on floating mats of vegetation, and will only fly short distances, somewhat weakly, with legs dangling below them. They are extremely vocal, making loud screeches, and harsh reedy peeps.

During a February in the early 2000s, my best friend from childhood and I were staying for a week at a little fishing village situated on a small lake in central Florida. We’d hike around the margins of the local marsh area every day to spot alligators, lizards and of course whatever bird life we could see. Living amid the usual egrets, herons and sandpipers, there was a noisy colony of iridescent medium-sized chicken-like birds, who had huge yellow feet, purple-blue plumage with a green back, and a red-and-yellow bill and white undertail. The coolest part of their appearance was a pale blue forehead shield, which looked like it had literally been painted onto the bird by some crazed artist. It soon became apparent that each duck-like individual had a slightly different look, hue or size of this frontal shield by which you could recognize him or her.

One of the sad results of the adaptation of wild creatures to places frequented by large groups of human beings is that certain individual animals are especially susceptible to becoming “tame” and they consequently become dependent upon people for their food – and show no fear of them. In the case of this group of gallinules, while most of the colony remained skittish upon our approach, scuttling away on little lily pads almost as if able to walk on water, one little buddy always remained quite close and would eat morsels of food right from our hands. He also called to us with an endearing “pip pip pip PEEEEEEEEEER!” We referred to this vocalization as “piping” and never forgot our little friend. In fact, when I returned to the camp a year later, I was able to locate him again!

So, when on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, in Tortuguero National Park, I was always elated to find my familiar Gallinule friends, although none was ever so charming or friendly as the piping gallinule of Leesburg, Florida. Just for an interesting comparison, I include below a photo of the Northern Jacana, a bird that appears very similar to the Gallinule, and has a yellow frontal shield. Like the Gallinule, the Jacana lives in marshes, ponds and other wetland ecosystems.

Not considered to be globally threatened, Purple Gallinule populations are probably decreasing in their range due to freshwater wetland loss in the United States, and in South and Central America. Sadly, these birds have been destroyed in rice fields by aerial spraying with pesticides.

Hear the vocalizations of the Purple Gallinule.

Photos in this entry by Frances Figart and Bruce Smith.

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