Story: Wetland birds

Page 10. Pūkeko and Australian coots

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Gallinules (swamp hens) and coots are in the family Rallidae, along with rails and crakes.

Pūkeko

The pūkeko (Porphyrio melanotus) – also known as the swamp hen or purple gallinule – ranges beyond wetlands on to pasture and croplands. Its wide diet has allowed it to adapt to farmland and urban parks.

Pūkeko are bulky birds with long legs and long-toed feet adapted to swampy country. Males weigh over 1 kilogram, females 850 grams, and they average 51 centimetres long. Pūkeko are deep purple-blue and black, with red legs and bill. They flick their tail with each step, showing the white patch underneath. The birds usually walk holding their heads up like hens, and fly with feet dangling below the body. They swim with their tails erect.

Distribution

Pūkeko and closely related species are found in most regions of the world, except the Americas and Antarctica. Fossil records indicate that they arrived in New Zealand around 1000 AD. Related species arrived much earlier and evolved into two endemic flightless species – the North and South island takahē.

Pūkeko appear to fly laboriously, yet they colonise distant islands and reach unlikely places. They normally live in lowland areas, but one intrepid bird was seen on the upper Tasman Glacier, stepping across a small crevasse.

Feeding

Pūkeko eat a wide range of foods, including various kinds of vegetation – especially rhizomes and corms, shoots, seeds and clover leaves. They also feed on grubs, worms, small fish, chicks and small mammals. They sometimes scavenge larger carcasses. Chicks are generally fed a protein-rich diet of invertebrate or other animal foods.

Noble villains

To Māori, red was a noble colour – so pūkeko, with their bright red bills and frontal shields, had high status. But the birds were unpopular because they raided gardens, damaging kūmara (sweet potato) and taro crops. Pūkeko were cast as villains in a number of traditions. Some farmers still consider them pests.

Breeding

While pūkeko sometimes breed in pairs, they often breed communally – they mate polygamously, several females lay eggs in one nest, and several males and non-breeding helpers assist with the incubation of eggs and the guarding and feeding of chicks. Nests are usually beaten-down clumps of tussock or rushes, often in water.

Australian coot

New Zealand had two endemic coots, now extinct. In the latter half of the 20th century the Australian coot (Fulica atra australis) became established. It was first recorded breeding in 1958 on Lake Hayes, in Otago. By 2005, around 2,000 were scattered on lakes throughout both main islands.

The bird is one of four subspecies of the Eurasian coot (Fulica atra), which is native to Europe, northern Africa, Asia and greater Australasia. The Australian coot breeds in Australia and New Zealand. It is a protected self-introduced native.

Appearance

Coots are mainly sooty black with a white bill and forehead shield. They superficially resemble pūkeko, but are smaller – 38 centimetres long, weighing around 550 grams. Mainly aquatic, coots have lobed toes. Their heads rock back and forth as they swim.

Feeding and habitat

Coots dive to gather aquatic plants or invertebrates, which they bring back to the surface to swallow. They also graze ashore. Shallow bays on medium-sized lakes with plenty of raupō (bulrush) and other shelter are their usual habitat, but they also visit lakes in urban parks. Most long-distance flying is done at night.

Nesting

Coots make floating nests of twigs and raupō attached to lake vegetation such as willow, and usually raise two broods per year. After breeding they may gather in large flocks.

How to cite this page:

Christina Troup, 'Wetland birds - Pūkeko and Australian coots', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/wetland-birds/page-10 (accessed 26 April 2017)

Story by Christina Troup, published 24 Sep 2007, reviewed & revised 17 Feb 2015