Boldly colored in iridescent greens and blues, the Purple Gallinule makes a dramatic impression on the observer. Prone to wandering, Purple Gallinules occasionally turn up well outside of their southern U.S. breeding range, even in other countries.
Juvenile Purple Gallinules from a first brood may help feed young birds in a second brood. Rice farms are often used for nesting, but an early harvest can mean that some young birds are lost to harvesting activities.
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Description of the Purple Gallinule
The Purple Gallinule is somewhat duck-like in shape, and is greenish above, with a bluish-purple head and underparts, bright yellow legs, a pale blue shield on the forehead, and a bill that is red at the base and yellow at the tip.
Seasonal change in appearance
Juveniles have a pale brown head, neck, and breast. First spring birds retain some brown in the head.
Purple Gallinules inhabit freshwater marshes and ponds with emergent vegetation.
Purple Gallinules eat aquatic plants, insects, fish, and tadpoles.
Purple Gallinules forage while swimming or walking.
Purple Gallinules breed along the southern Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, as well as a short distance north of the Gulf Coast. They winter in south Florida, Mexico, Central America, and South America. The population is stable.
The Purple Gallinule is often called a Swamp Hen.
Purple Gallinules have long toes, which help them walk on floating lily pads.
Purple Gallinules are nomadic, and can occur well outside of their breeding range at any time of year.
Vocalizations consist of a series of honks and grunts.
- American Coots and common Moorhens are mostly gray.
The Purple Gallinule’s nest consists of a platform of aquatic plants over water, often with unused extra nests in the area.
Number: Usually lay 6-8 eggs.
Color: Buffy with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 22-25 days, and leave the nest shortly after hatching, though associating with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Purple Gallinule
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Purple Gallinule – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
IONORNIS MARTINICUS (Linnaeus)
The extensive marshes which border the upper waters of the St. Johns River in Florida gave us, among other thrills, our first glimpse of the purple gallinule in its chosen haunts. Here the marshes were about 3 miles wide, through which the river wound a meandering course. Except in the river channel the water was only 2 or 3 feet deep with a muddy botton of decidedly uncertain depth. There were numerous permanent islands, overgrown with willows, which served as rookeries for herons, extensive tracts of tall saw grass, almost impassable and with very uncertain ground beneath, and innumerable small floating islands of grass, small shrubs and marsh vegetation, treacherous to walk upon with imminent danger of breaking through to unknown depths. The, so called, open water through which we had to pole our skiff, wound in tortuous channels among the islands and through the saw grass; it was completely filled with a rank and luxuriant growth of yellow pond lilies, or spatter docks (Nymphaea adveua), locally known as “bonnets,” through which we were constantly pushing the skiff with two long poles, the pointed prow making a passageway between the thick, fleshy stalks and great broad leaves. It was still more difficult to push through the patches of “lettuce,” a small floating plant, not unlike a small head of lettuce in appearance, which grows in rather deep water and so thickly as to be often impenetrable. Common, white pond lilies were quite numerous in the open places; and among the “bonnets” they were in full bloom. Water turkeys, wood, and white ibises, and various herons were seen flying over or found nesting in the willows. Least bitterns, sora rails, and boat-tailed grackles were breeding in the saw grass and the loud notes of the grackles and redwings were heard all over the marshes. And in the larger open spaces, where the “bonnets,” “lettuce” and pond lilies grew we saw the purple gallinules, together with their more common relatives the Florida gallinules and coots. We were thrilled with the striking beauty of this handsome species, as we saw for the first time its brilliant colors in its native haunts. One can not mistake it as it flies feebly along just over the tops of the “bonnets” with its long yellow legs dangling. And how gracefully arid lightly it walks over the lily pads, supported by its long toes, nodding and bowing with a dovelike motion and flirting the white flag in its tail.
Arthur T. Wayne (1910) says of this species in South Carolina:
This beautiful and graceful summer resident is locally abundant during the breeding season on abandoned rice plantations, and also on fresh-water rivers where the wampee (Pontederia cordata) grows in profusion. This plant bears purplish blue flowers which act as a protective coloration to this species. Where the plant is growing in profusion the gahlinules are always most abundant, but where it is absent scarcely more than one or two pairs can be found. The birds generally arrive between April 10 and 17 and are common by the 25th.
Nesting: We failed to find the purple gallinules’ nests in the St. Johns marshes because we did not know where to look for them; but in 1925, with the help of Oscar E. Baynard, I learned something of its nesting habits, for we found it breeding in two places. He taught me to look for the nests on the floating islands, with a high, dense growth of herbaceous vegetation rather than in the pickerel weed or “bonnets.” They seem to like to have the nesting site surrounded by deep water. In a marshy pond in Pasco County, while we were watching some Florida gallinulcs, we saw a pair of purple gallinules near some patches of rank vegetation that looked promising. The pond looked shallow enough to wade, for it was overgrown with pickerel weed around the borders and covered with “bonnets” in the center, with numerous clumps of cat-tails, willows and “ty-ty” bushes scattered over it. But we soon found tnat it was too deep to wade; and so we made another visit to it with a boat on April 25. We examined several empty nests on the larger, boggy, or floating islands of cat-tails, pickerel weed, gra.sses, and other rank vegetation, one of which was 2 feet above the water in a small bunch of the flags. And we finally found a nest containing six nearly fresh eggs; it was in a small bunch of isolated cat-tail flags in an open place surrounded by deep water, overgrown with “bonnets” and white pond lilies; the nest was a floating mass of dead flags, soggy and wet below, but dry above and well hollowed in the center, which was only a few inches above the water, exceptionally low for this species; the flags were arched over the top of the nest, which only partially concealed it.
The following day, April 26, we found two nests, each with six eggs, in which incubation had begun, in an arm of Lake Apopka, in Lake County. This arm of the lake is about a mile or more longï and perhaps hail a mile wide; much of it is open water, but around the shores is a broad strip of marsh with a rank growth of flags, pickerel weed, and other aquatic vegetation; and at the upper end of it, farthest from the lake, it is full of boggy or floating islands, surrounded with water 8 to 10 feet deep, covered in the open spaces with “bonnets” and white pond lilies. It is an ideal place for both species of gallinules. Our first nest was on one of the floating islands, far too treacherous to walk on, overgrown mainly with a rank growth of wild parsnip, conspicuous with its white blossoms, together with Pontedema, Hydrocotyle, flags and sedges, the whole being tied together with a tangle of morning glory vines. The nest was made of the dried leaves and stems of Pontederia, firmly interwoven with the growing plants and well concealed. Its rim was about 20 inches above the water, it measured 8 by 10 inches in diameter, and was hollowed to a depth of about 3 inches; the whole structure was about S inches in depth. The other nest was similar, but slightly smaller and placed 2 inches lower, on a larger and firmer island, but not strong enough to walk on, where the principal growth was Pontederia.
Audubon (1840) writes:
The nest is generally placed among a kind of rushes that are green at all seasons, round, very pithy, rarely more than 5 feet high, and grow more along the margins of ponds than in the water itself. The birds gather many of them, and fasten them at the height of 2 or 3 feet, and there the neat is placed. It is composed of the most delicate rushes, whether green or withered, and is quite as substantial as that of the common gallinule, flattish, having an internal diameter of 8 or 10 inches, while the entire breadth is about 15.
A nest found by Herbert W. Brandt, in Bexar County, Texas, on June 8, 1919, is described in his notes as: a shallow platform located among the cat-tails and rushes near the shore in shallow water and in an isolated clump. The cat-tails were bent down and woven together in the manner of our least bittern and the nest would easily be taken for one. The nest was about 30 inches above the water and a shallow hut well made platform of live flat leaves.
Messrs. Quillin and Holleman (1918), referring to the same general locality, say:
Nests of this species are better built than those of the Florida gallinule, and are placed at a greater elevation from the water. The majority are rarely under 2 feet, and in a few cases, where the exceptional growth of the reeds permitted, they were found 4 or 5 feet from the water. Some ar~~ placed on the densely matted boughs in thickets of willows growing in shallow water, hut these are always placed lower than those found in the reeds.
Alexander Sprunt, jr., has sent me the following notes on the nesting of the purple gallinule in South Carolina:
This species is a much handsomer bird than the Florida gallinule, and in my experience, much shyer. It is a summer resident of South Carolina, and frequents the old rice plantations in large numbers. They are very partial to growths of wampee (Pontederia cord at a) rarely placing their nests anywhere except in clumps of this water loving plant. The materials used are decayed leaves, and stalks of the same plant, and the nests securely fastened to stems of the growing clumps. Mr. A. T. Wayne in his Birds of South Carolina, mentions the fact that there are always three or four half completed nests in the vicinity of the one which holds the eggs. This seems to be an invariable rule, as all the nests I have examined in late years have had others in various degrees of completion scattered about within a radius of several feet.
The locations are generally in a more exposed place than those used by the Florida gallinule; I have found nests placed on top of piles of drift weed, almost totally exposed to the sun. Mr. Wayne also mentions that he thinks incubation is aided by the decomposition of vegetable matter in the nest. I consider this highly probable. Crows must do great damage to these exposed nests, as there are many. about the rice fields, and little escapes their eyes. The high spring tides also cause damage by flooding the nest locations. This last May, I found perhaps, 15 nests, in rice fields that showed every indication of having been torn loose from their holdings b the high tides, which inundate the fields at this season.
Eggs: The purple gallinuic lays from 5 to 10 eggs; from 6 to 8 are the usual numbers and larger sets are uncommon or rare. They are ovate in shape and the shell is smooth with little or no gloss. The ground color varies from “pale cinnamon~pink~~ or “pale pinkish b~~ff”to “cartridge buff.” They are lightly and unevenly marked with very small spots and fine dots of bright browns and pale drabs. The measurements of 56 eggs average 39.2 by 28.8; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 42.7 by 30.2; 39 by 30.2; and 34.6 by 26.2 millimeters.
Plumages: In the downy, young, purple gallinule the head is scantily covered with black down, mixed with silvery white hairs on the crown, cheeks, and throat; the base of the bill is yellowish, the outer half black, with a white nail; t.he body is thickly covered with long black down, glossy on the back and sooty black on the belly.
In the juvenal plumage, in July and August, the head, neck, and breast are dull brownish, shading from “bister~’ on the crown to cinnamon buff on the neck and breast and to whitish on the chin and central abdomen; the back is glossy olive bronze; the wings are glossy olive green of varying shades and reflections; the rump and tail are “Prout’s brown~~ or “mummy brown.” This plumage is worn for only two months, or less, when a postjuvcnal molt begins. This molt seems to be very variable in its progress, or much prolonged, for various stages of it can be seen all through the fall and winter. It involves a complete renewal of all the contour plumage and in some cases the flight feathers also. I have seen birds showing a complete molt in February and others which still retained the 01(1, worn wings and tail in April. Generally by February, at the latest, t.he juvenal plumage has been replaced on the head and breast by new purple feathers, tipped with whitish on the breast; these white tips soon wear away; the new plumage on the back is glossy green, much as in the adult. Traces of immaturity remain through the spring, such as some old brown feathers in the head and neck and some whitish feathers in the throat. The first postnuptial molt, which is complete and probably earlier than in the adult, produces the adult plumage. Adults have a complete postnuptial molt, in late summer and fall, and a slight, partial prenuptial molt in early spring.
Food: Very little has been published about the food of the purple gallinule. Mr. Wayne (1910) says that it “feeds largely upou rice during the autumn.” It certainly frequents the rice fields at. that season and is said to do much damage to the rice crop, for it not only picks up grains from the ground but bends down the stalks to reach the seeds. Mr. J. G. Wells (1902) says that, in the Wcst Indies, “they are caught in fish-pots baited with corn” and that “they do damage to the Indian corn, as they climb up the stalks and eat the ears; they also climb and eat plantains and bananas.” Probably they live chiefly on grains, seeds, and other vegetable food, but there is some evidence that they also eat snails, and perhaps insects. Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway (1884) say:
“Worms, mollusks, and the fruit of various kinds of aquatic plants are its food. It gathers seeds and carries them to its beak with its claws, and it also makes use of them in clinging to the rushes where the water is very deep.”
Behavior: The purple gallinule is easily recognized in life by its brilliant colors and by its bright yellow legs, which hang down in flight. Its flight is weak and raillike, slow, and not long protracted; it hovers feebly along, just clearing the tops of the vegetation, and then suddenly drops down out of sight. It cackles almost constantly while flying, the notes sounding much like the cackling of a hen or the syllables ” Keic, Kele, Kek, Kek.” Mr. Wayne (1910) says that it has “very peculiar call notes. One, which is very guttural, is to be heard incessantly.”
Audubon (1840) writes:
The jerking motions of the tail of this bird, whenever it i. disturbed, or attracted l)y any remarkable object, are very quick, and so often repeated as to have a curious appearance. it runs with great speed, and dives with equal address, often moving off under water with nothing but the bill above. The lightness and ease with which it walks on the floating plants are surprising, for in proceeding they scarcely produce any perceptible disturbance of the water. When swimming in full security, they move buoyantly and gracefully, throwing the head forward at every propelliimg motion of the feet. The flight of this species is less swift than that of the common gallinule, or of the rails, unless when it is traveling far, when it flies high, and advances in a direct course by continued flappings; but when it is in its breeding or feeding grounds, its flight is slow and short, seldom exceeding 30 or 41) yards, and with the legs hanging down; and it alights among the herbage with its wings spread upwards in the manner of the rails. It often alights on the low branches of trees and bushes growing over the water, and walk lightly and gracefully over them. The purple gallinule not infrequently alights on ahips at sea. While at the Island of Galveston, on the 26th of April, I was off ered several live individuals by the officers of the Boston frigate, which they had caught on board. My friend John Bachman once received three specimens that had been caught 300 miles from land, one of them having come through the eabin window.
P. H. Gosse (1847) has drawn a good word picture of this bird, which he calls the sultana, as he has seen it in Jamaica, as follows:
I was struck with the remarkable elegance of one that I saw by the roadside, about midway between Savanna le Mar and Bluefields. It was at one of those pieces of dark water called blueholes, reputed to be unfathomable. The surface was covered with the leaves and tangled stems of various water plants, and on these the sultanawas walking, supported by its breadth of foot; so that the leaves on which it trod sank only an inch or two, notwithstanding that the bird, according to its usual manner, moved with great deliberation, frequently standing still, and looking leisurely on either side. As it walked over to where the water was less encumbered, it became more immersed, until it seemed to be swimming, yet even then, from the motion of its legs, it was evidently walking, either on the bottom, or on the yielding plants. At the margin of the pool, it stood some time in a dark nook overhung by bushes, where its green and purple hues were finely thrown out by the dark background. I could not help thinking what a beautiful addition it would make to an ornamental water in an English park; and the more so, because its confiding tameness allows of approach sufficiently near to admire its brilliancy. Nor are its motions void of elegance; the constant jerking of its pied tail is perhaps rather singular than admirable, but the bridling of its curved and lengthened neck, and the lifting of its feet are certainly graceful.
Range: Southern United States, islands of the Caribbean Sea, Central and South America; casual in southern Canada.
Breeding range: North to Texas (Harris and Orange Counties); Louisiana (Cameron County, Avery Island, and Houma); probably Mississippi (Natchez); probably Alabama (Chuckvee Bay, Baldwin County); Florida (Tallahassee and Oldtown); and South Carolina (Yemassee, and probably Charleston). East to South Carolina (Yemassee, Frogmore, and probably Charleston); Georgia (probably Okefinokee Swamp and Savannah); Florida (Okiawaha River, Lake Harris, Lake Okeechobee, and Caloosaliatchie River); Cuba (Isle of Pines); Haiti; formerly Porto Rico; the Lesser Antilles (Guadeloupe, Dominica, Santa Lucia, Carriacou, Grenada, Tobago, and Trinidad); British Guiana (Georgetown); French Guiana (Cayenne); Brazil (Pernambuco, Bahia, Espiritu Santo, Cantagallo, and San Paulo); and Argentina (Barracas el Sud). South to Argentina (Barracas al Sud and Santiago del Estero); western Brazil (Caicara); and Colombia (Gorgona Island). West to Colombia (Gorgona Island, Medellin, and Lake of Peten); Colima (Rio de Coahuayana); Tepic (probably San Bias); Tamaulipas (Matamoras); and Texas (Brownsville and Harris County).
Winter range: The purple gallinule is resident throughout most of its breeding range, withdrawing at this season, only from the northern portion. At this season it is found north to Florida (Tallahassee, Royal Palm Hammock, and probably Lake Harris); and Texas (Brownsville).
Migration: .An early date for their arrival in South Carolina is Charleston, April 21, 1908.
Casual records: The species has on numerous occasions been taken or observed at points far outside of its normal range. Several were recorded in Bermuda in April 1849, April 1850, and one on May 30, 1851, and one on October 22, 1851. Continental North American records include North Carolina (Currituck Sound, November 12, 1919, and Raleigh, June 3,1887); Virginia (Cobb Island, May 1891); Pennsylvania, (Cumberland County, February 19, 1895); New Jersey (Cape May, May 10, 1907, and May, 1892, Tuckerton, prior to 1894, Longport, May 23, 1898, and Ventnor, May 1902); New York (Middle Island, summer of 1879, and near Flatlands); Connecticut (Middletown about 1855, and again in 1877, Stamford, spring of 1884, and Bridgeport, June 26, 1903); Rhode Island (Westerly, about 1857, and Seaconnet, June 8,1900); Massachusetts (Randolph, May 24, 1904, near Rockport, April 12, 1875, Boxford, June 1897, Chatham, April 1890, Sandwich, April 1902, Worcester, May 30, 1887, Swampscott, April 22, 1852, Plymouth, April 9,1892, and Cape Cod, April 1870); New Hampshire (Rye, and Dover); Maine (South Lewiston, April 11, 1897, Winter Harbor, November 7, 1899, Calais, 1869, and Boothbay, September 1877); New Brunswick (St. John, April 6, 1881, and Gagetown, September, 1880); Nova Scotia (Halifex, April, 1889, January 30, 1870, January 19, 1896, February 1870, and May 23, 1880); Quebec (near Quebec, about September 15, 1909); Missouri (St. Charles, April 22, 1877); Illinois (opposite St. Louis, April 18, 1877, Chicago, May 1866, near Coal City, April 24, 1q00, and Wilmington, April 26, 1909); Indiana (Richmond, March 27, 1918); Ohio (Big Miami River, March 31, 1877, Sandusky Bay, April 28, 1896, Cedar Point, September 2, 1894, Lakeside, November 10,1917, and Circleville, May 10, 1877); Michigan (Ann Arbor, August 12, 1879, and St. Clair Flats, about 1883); Ontario (Guelph, about 1894 and the mouth of the Rouge River, April 8,1892); Wisconsin (Milwaukee, about 1860, also at Racine and near Janesville); Kansas (Douglas County, April26, 1896, and April 18, 1909, and Manhattan, April 14, 1893); Arizona (near Tucson, October 20, 1887, and Tombstone, June 1904); Colorado (Florence, June 17, 1911); and Utah (Haynes Lake, November 23, 1924).
Egg dates: Florida: 32 records, April 10 to Juiie 26; 16 records, May 6 to 30. Louisiana: 11 records, April 15 to June 2; 6 records, April 29 to May 19. Texas: 16 records, April 27 to July 6; 8 records, May 19 to June 8.