I have come to the conclusion that Pukeko are suicidal. I so often see them on the side of the road, dithering, darting backwards and forwards, looking for an opportunity to cross, only to come back later to see them squashed on the road. They seem to have no road sense at all. However, the ornithologist WRB Oliver had other ideas when he said, “The Pukeko is a bold and fearless bird. It has learned that trains and motorcars are harmless and takes no notice of them.”
If I count the numbers killed on the relatively short stretch of road I drive over two or three times a week, more than a hundred must die there every year. If one multiplies that with the hundreds of similar stretches of road, then one wonders how the species can sustain itself but somehow they do. Indeed they are so common they are often treated with undeserved contempt.
They are of course drawn to roadsides because of the drains there which supply the sort of habitat they particularly like and which has virtually disappeared elsewhere, the raupo swamps. So they are not so stupid or suicidal after all. It is really just that a particularly desirable food source outweighs the risks.
Pukeko, a member of the rail family which includes Weka, is really quite one of the most gorgeous of our birds and does not deserve the contempt bred from familiarity. They are also called the Purple Swamp Hen or Purple Gallinule although they are not really purple at all but, for the most part, a deep almost iridescent indigo blue. The back and wings are black with a greenish gloss and the undertail coverts are pure white. The large scarlet bill and orange-red legs and feet complete a very exotic picture.
There are 15 sub species and the range of the Pukeko includes southern Europe, Africa, India, Southeast Asia, New Guinea, Melanesia, western Polynesia, as well as Australia and New Zealand, so it is very common indeed. The form melanotus breeds in northern and eastern Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand, including the Kermadec and Chatham Islands.
According to the best authority on New Zealand Birds, the Heather and Robertson Field Guide, it seems to have become established in New Zealand about 1000 years ago but became abundant only several hundred years ago as forest was cleared.
Diet is a wide variety of swamp and pasture vegetation but also insects, frogs, small birds and eggs. They have prospered on farmland and are regarded as a pest for their damage to grain and vegetable crops.
Oliver, always ready to defend any bird, says that it is a useful bird insofar as it destroys caterpillars and crickets in cultivated ground. “Its crime list however, is a rather formidable one. It is an old hand at plundering potato crops. Its marauding excursions are usually carried out at night. It eats potatoes, kumara and other vegetables and a considerable amount of grass and clover. Given a chance it will eat the eggs of fowls and ducks and will kill young ducks of which it may eat only the head.”
On the other side of the coin, Harrier hawks often attack Pukekos while rats and stoats plunder their nests. Harriers are dealt with by the Pukekos gathering together and driving them away with much shrieking and carrying on. Oliver also says that there are many reports of Pukekos hunting stoats off their territory with all the Pukekos in the neighbourhood joining in. Certainly the shrieking “blue murder” that goes on at night along the river must be against stoats and rats.
In places where there is plenty of cover, Pukeko prefer to run or swim to safety but in more open spaces they do fly for short distances. Their take off is labored, they are awkward flyers, flying with feet dangling and often crash landing into a tree or scrub.
East Coast Maori assert that the Pukeko was introduced by their ancestors, that it was brought here on the Horouta canoe which reached these shores about twenty four generations ago, as Elsdon Best records. He also says that the Aotea tribe of the West Coast asserts that the Pukeko, the Kiore and the Karaka tree were all introduced by their ancestors in a boat called the Aotea.
They are birds that are full of character and can provide a lot of amusement for the observer. The white undertail is flirted cheekily with every movement and their high querulous notes run the whole gamut of expression, from curiosity to interrogation to scolding. The naturalist Guthrie Smith maintained that they make great pets and that every country family should rear them.
Evidence from Pliny the Elder and other sources shows that the Romans kept purple swamphens as decorative birds at large villas and expensive houses. The Greeks and Romans refrained from eating the PorphyriÕn but imported the birds and placed them in palaces and temples, where they walked around freely. Porphyrio means purple in Greek.
The purple swamphen is depicted climbing on papyrus stems in the Egyptian wall paintings at Medum.
— Narena Olliver, Ohiwa, 2000.
Other common names: —
Purple gallinule, purple swamphen.
51 cm., males 1050 g., females 850 g., deep almost iridescent indigo blue. The back and wings black with a greenish gloss, undertail coverts are pure white, scarlet bill, orange-red legs.
Where to find: —
Abundant throughout New Zealand, in rough damp pasture near wetlands.
More Information: —
Illustration description: —
Buller, Walter Lawry, Birds opf New Zealand, 1888.
Audubon, John James, Birds of America, 1840.
Heather, B., & Robertson, H., Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, 2000.
Oliver, W.R.B. New Zealand Birds, 1955.
Best, Elsdon, Forest Lore of the Maori.
Page date & version: —
Monday, 2 June 2014; ver2009v1