Purple Gallinule

Porphyria martinicus

Purple Gallinule

Purple Gallinule, photographed at Green Cay Nature Center, Boynton Beach, Palm Beach County, in January 2017.

Purple gallinules, Porphyria martinicus, can show up in the most unexpected places, and when they do, they can cause quite a stir. As in "what the heck is that?"

It's a tropical bird, really, with a normal range that barely reaches the United States. And like others of its clan — moorhens, coots and soras — it is a rather inelegant flyer. But purple gallinules have been known to wander as far north as Canada, and to cross oceans to Europe and Africa. With its size and beautiful plumage, it tends to get noticed when it does.

And purple gallinules are beautifully colored birds; the evening light on their iridescent feathers makes this bird a spectacular sight.

Purple gallinules are year-round residents of South Florida and a common inhabitant of wetlands and marshes, usually hanging out in along the edges amid dense vegetation. With their long legs and toes, they're regularly seen doing a kind of high-wire act amid stands of reedy plants in a quest for one of their favorite foods, fire flag seed.

Their range extends northward along the south Atlantic coast and west along the Gulf to Texas but only during breeding season. They're also found throughout the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and South America to Argentina.

Purple gallinules are similar in size and shape to moorhens and American coots. They have a red bill that has a yellow tip; the forehead has a light blue "shield" that distinguishes the gallinule from moorhens and coots. They can approach 15 inches in length, with a wingspan of about 22 inches.

The bird that probably most closely resembles the gallinule is the purple swamphen, an exotic that has become increasing common in South Florida. Swamphens, however, are much larger birds, have a red rather than blue forehead shield and an all red bill.

Despite their obvious fondness for fire flag — we've seen parents bend stalks to the ground so their offspring can sample the tasty treat — gallinules are omnivores. They will eat fruit, leaves, insects, frogs, fish and occasionally the eggs and young of other birds.

Breeding season here, from our observations, seems to be late spring and early summer. Gallinules build nests made of vegetation a couple of feet off the ground in dense stands of marsh plants. Females lay six to eight eggs per clutch; both parents share incubation duty, usually between three and four weeks. The young leave the nest soon after hatching but it takes as long as nine weeks before they can fly. It's common to see juveniles caring for their younger siblings. Purple gallinules are members of Rallidae, the rail family.

Green Cay Nature Center

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Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.