The Purple Gallinule

2011 Howard Platt March 2011 Nature

By Howard Platt from the March 2011 Edition

There are many areas of marsh and wetlands down the west coast of Mexico, and in to the interior lakes. They are often partly filled with tall rush and low water lilies or other dense stands of floating vegetation. These wetlands make ideal homes for many water fowl with the right physical characteristics.

Long term success in living and sometimes, just survival, demands an ability to fit in well with the environment. The abilities of an organism, in physical terms need to be a good match with the challenges and opportunities the organism will face. So, what does it take for a bird to do well in wetlands?

The purple gallinule is one bird that thrives in the rushes and on the floating vegetation in marsh areas. It is a member of the rail family and is a similar size to a chicken. Its back is a purple-blue turning to an iridescent green over the lower back and tail. The bill is bright red with a yellow tip and it has a pale blue shield on its forehead. There is a white patch under the tail, and yellow legs with very long boney toes.

Members of the Rail family are narrow from side to side. Being slim is a great advantage when you need to travel through the thickets of tall rushes without disturbing them and giving away your location. Birds that spend their time on more open water, such as ducks, do not have this advantage. Of course, bird watching becomes more difficult because, although you may be very close to them, once they are a few feet into the dense reeds they are completely out of sight. Nesting is much safer as predators have a much harder time finding the nests and moving around in the dense rushes to search for them is very difficult.When out among the lilies or water hyacinth the long toes come into action, spreading the weight of the bird so widely that it can easily walk over the floating plants. These long toes are also used to turn over vegetation in the search for food which consists of quite a variety of pant and animal matter. Although it prefers to walk over the floating vegetation, it can swim very well when it needs to.

Even its colors, which at first may sound so showy, help it blend into its environment of blue flowering water hyacinth and the many shades of green and blue-green of the plants. Chicks are a fuzzy black and also have very long toes so even at one day old they can follow parents looking for food. While the chicks are very small they are fed by the parents.

The birds can fly when startled but appear to be very clumsy. It is a little strange that birds that appear to fly so poorly are in fact very good at exploring and finding new wetlands. They are mainly tropical birds but have been found as far north as Canada. Purple gallinules are well fitted to the wetlands, and even to finding new homes if the old ones dry up. Perhaps this is why they are slowly increasing in number and range.

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