Also known as the swamp hen, this is the most commonly encountered of the five living species of the rail family native to New Zealand, the others being the closely related takahe or Notornis, weka, banded rail, spotless crake and marsh crake. Pukekos dwell in swamps, along lake shores, and in poorly drained pastures throughout New Zealand and Chatham Islands, and are occasionally wind-borne to the Kermadecs and Campbell Island. Though native to this country, the species, in the form of various subspecies, occurs widespread in a number of overseas countries. The local subspecies is called melanotus.
The plumage is mainly indigo blue; the head and wings are black, the latter with a greenish gloss. The feathers beneath the tail are white. When disturbed, pukekos flick their tail and the white feathers become more prominent. This habit of tail flicking is common to all other rails. Bill, legs, and feet are scarlet and the eyes ruby red. There is no clear distinction in the general appearance of the sexes, but males are slightly bigger than females. Ungraceful in becoming airborne, pukekos are strong on the wing and are also swift runners. Though their large feet are not webbed, pukekos are good swimmers. Their usual call is a piercing squawk.
Their diet consists of the soft parts of aquatic vegetation, grasses, clover, berries, and seeds. Most of these are usually eaten parrot fashion by holding them up to the beak in one claw. Animals, too, are eaten, and these may include insects, worms, fish (eels) and, occasionally, very young birds and birds' eggs. Pukekos sometimes damage vegetable gardens, crops, and haystacks, and these habits, plus those of eating wild ducks' eggs and their young, make them unpopular with sportsmen and farmers. The damage done, however, is often greatly exaggerated. In any event pukekos are not shot in any great numbers during their open season.
There is a lengthy breeding season and the nests consist of untidy bowls of grass or other locally available vegetation. Four to nine buff-coloured eggs blotched with purple are usually laid, but when pairs nest close together, egg stealing may occur, and sometimes two or three hens may share a nest, all these females apparently being mated to the one cock. Under such circumstances up to 16 eggs may be found in one nest. Both sexes share the task of incubation, the period of which is about four weeks.
by Gordon Roy Williams, B.SC.(HONS.)(SYDNEY), Lecturer in Agricultural Zoology, Lincoln Agricultural College.