Photographed in Anahuac NWR
Lurking in the marshes of the extreme southeastern U.S. lives one of the most vividly colored birds in all of North America. Purple Gallinules combine cherry red, sky blue, moss green, aquamarine, indigo, violet, and school-bus yellow, a color palette that blends surprisingly well with tropical and subtropical wetlands. Watch for these long-legged, long-toed birds stepping gingerly across water lilies and other floating vegetation as they hunt frogs and invertebrates or pick at tubers.
Purple Gallinules are remarkable fliers and turn up far out of their normal range surprisingly often. They’ve even shown up in Iceland, Switzerland, South Georgia island, the Galápagos, and South Africa. A recent study noted that these may not be mere accidents: years with severe drought in the gallinule’s core range tended to produce more so-called vagrants in autumn and winter. In other words, these wanderers may not be lost but perhaps seeking places to feed because their usual haunts do not have adequate food.
In the tropics, such as Panama and Costa Rica, Purple Gallinules often have multiple broods per year. In an unusual behavior for rails, the juvenile and immature birds from earlier nestings often assist parents with feeding and defending the new chicks and defending the family’s territory as well.
Purple Gallinule chicks are “subprecocial,” meaning they can walk around soon after hatching but cannot feed themselves for the first few weeks of life. The chicks are equipped with a tiny claw at the end of their pollex (innermost digit, corresponding to a human thumb), which helps them grip vegetation as they move around their environment.
Photographed at Shoveler's Pond in Anahuac NWR
We called these birds Moorhens, but they changed the name to Common Gallinule.
The Common Gallinule swims like a duck and walks atop floating vegetation like a rail with its long and slender toes. This boldly marked rail has a brilliant red shield over the bill and a white racing stripe down its side. It squawks and whinnies from thick cover in marshes and ponds from Canada to Chile, peeking in and out of vegetation. This species was formerly called the Common Moorhen and is closely related to moorhen species in the Old World.
The Common Gallinule has long toes that make it possible to walk on soft mud and floating vegetation. The toes have no lobes or webbing to help with swimming, but the gallinule is a good swimmer anyway.
Newly hatched Common Gallinule chicks have spurs on their wings that help them climb into the nest or grab onto vegetation.
One subspecies of the Common Gallinule is found only in the Hawaiian Islands and is often called the Hawaiian Gallinule, or alae ula, where it is an endangered species. According to Hawaiian mythology the alae ula brought fire to humans, and its forehead was scorched in the process.
Common Gallinules expanded their range northward during the twentieth century. They started breeding in Pennsylvania for the first time in 1904; now they breed as far north as the Maritime Provinces of Canada.
Common Gallinules build nests to raise their young, but they also build platforms of matted vegetation to display for potential mates.
Photographed in Anahuac NWR
The waterborne American Coot is one good reminder that not everything that floats is a duck. A close look at a coot—that small head, those scrawny legs—reveals a different kind of bird entirely. Their dark bodies and white faces are common sights in nearly any open water across the continent, and they often mix with ducks. But they’re closer relatives of the gangly Sandhill Crane and the nearly invisible rails than of Mallards or teal.
Although it swims like a duck, the American Coot does not have webbed feet like a duck. Instead, each one of the coot’s long toes has broad lobes of skin that help it kick through the water. The broad lobes fold back each time the bird lifts its foot, so it doesn’t impede walking on dry land, though it supports the bird’s weight on mucky ground.
American Coots in the winter can be found in rafts of mixed waterfowl and in groups numbering up to several thousand individuals.
The ecological impact of common animals, like this ubiquitous waterbird, can be impressive when you add it all up. One estimate from Back Bay, Virginia, suggested that the local coot population ate 216 tons (in dry weight) of vegetation per winter.