Porphyrio melanotus Temminck, 1820
Other names: pūkeko, purple swamphen, purple gallinule, south-west Pacific swamphen, pook, Australasian swamphen
Geographical variation: There are 5 recognised subspecies within the south-west Pacific swamphen; New Zealand birds are of the subspecies melanotus. The south-west Pacific swamphen forms part of a super-species cluster along with western swamphen P. porphyrio, African swamphen P. madagascariensis, grey-headed swamphen P. poliocephalus, Philippine swamphen P. pulverulentus and black-backed swamphen P. indicus ranging from the western Mediterranean through Africa and Asia to Polynesia.
The pukeko is a widespread and easily recognisable bird that has benefitted greatly by the clearing of land for agriculture. In addition to its brilliant red frontal shield and deep violet breast plumage, the pukeko is interesting for having a complex social life. In many areas, pukeko live in permanent social groups and defend a shared territory that is used for both feeding and breeding. Social groups can have multiple breeding males and females, but all eggs are laid in a single nest and the group offspring are raised by all group members.
The pukeko is a large, conspicious rail found throughout New Zealand. The head, breast and throat are deep blue/violet, the back and wings are black, and the under-tail coverts are conspicuously white. The conical bright red bill is connected to a similarly coloured ‘frontal shield’ ornament covering the forehead, the eyes are also red. The legs and feet are orange, with long, slim toes. Females are smaller than males, but similarly coloured. Juveniles are similar to adults but duller, with black eyes and black bill and shield that turn to red around 3 months of age.
Voice: pukeko are very vocal with a variety of calls. Territorial ‘crowing’ is the loudest and most frequently heard call. A variety of contact calls including ‘’n’yip’, ‘hiccup’ and ‘squawk’ are used between adults, and between adults and chicks. The defence call is a loud, shrill screech used when a harrier is nearby. A similar, but deeper and hoarser, call is made during aggressive interactions between individuals. A soft nasal drone is performed during copulation runs.
Similar species: takahe are about twice the size (in weight) and flightless, with a green back and wing cover. Juveniles may be confused with the spotless crake which lacks a frontal shield and has a more slender bill. Rare vagrant dusky moorhen is more likely to be seen swimming, is not as upright as a pukeko, and is smaller and greyer with a yellow tip to the red bill, and a dark centre to the otherwise white undertail. The equally rare (in New Zealand) black-tailed native-hen is much smaller with a green-and-orange bill, white spots on the flanks and a longer tail that is black underneath.
Distribution and Habitat
Pukeko are found throughout New Zealand, although less common in drier regions. They are typically found near sheltered fresh or brackish water (e.g. vegetated swamps, streams or lagoons), especially adjacent to open grassy areas and pastures. Pukeko are regularly seen near roadside and drainage ditches and along the margins of scrub or forested areas, from sea level up to 2300 m. Pukeko are resident on Chatham and Pitt Islands (though scarce there in the presence of dense weka populations) and on Raoul Island in the Kermadec Islands. They have been recorded as vagrants on L’Esperance Rock (Kermadec Islands, September 1988), Campbell Island (January 1947) and Snares Islands (April 2016).
Pukeko are very abundant and widespread, with high population densities in areas of the North Island and west coast of South Island. New Zealand’s pukeko population was estimated to be >600,000 birds in the 1980s.
Ecological and Economic Impacts
Pukeko may be hunted under license in New Zealand. While many shot birds are not consumed, the pukeko is underrated as table fare. Their blue breast feathers are prized as fly-tying feathers and for use in Maori cloaks.
In some areas, pukeko are considered an agricultural or garden pest, as they will pull-up and eat planted vegetables and crops. Pukeko caused much damage to tree planting programmes on Tiritiri Matangi and Mana Islands until the solution of planting seedlings inside plastic tube cloches was implemented. Large populations of pukeko may also cause minor damage to livestock paddocks by eating grasses and soiling water troughs. For these reasons, landowners and managers occasionally seek permission to cull pukeko, either by shooting or poisoning birds. The Department of Conservation has periodically controlled pukeko numbers at managed sites on Great Barrier Island to reduce their predation of brown teal ducklings. While pukeko will occasionally attack, kill and eat offspring of other bird species, they are not considered a regular predator.
Pukeko have a highly variable mating system. Birds may nest as monogamous pairs but can also form polyandrous, polygynandrous and, more rarely, polygynous groups. Any of these groups may also have non-breeding helpers. When multiple breeding females are present, all lay in the same nest, a phenomenom known as “joint-laying”. Clutch size is typically 4-6 eggs per females and when multiple females contribute to a single nest the total clutch size can be as high as 18 eggs. Incubation is predominantly by breeding males, with some assistance from breeding females. All group members contribute to chick care. Incubation begins midway through laying and lasts 23-27 days. Hatching is spread over several days, but is more synchronous than laying. Chicks begin leaving the nest after 4-5 days, but are fed by adults for c. 2 months. In the North Island, laying can occur in any month, with a peak in August to November. In the South Island, breeding normally takes place between September and January.
Behaviour and ecology
Pukeko are commonly seen foraging in paddocks and along roadsides. When disturbed, they prefer to run or hide rather than fly, but once airborne, they are capable fliers and can fly long distances (e.g. to offshore islands). Despite not having webbed feet, they are also strong swimmers.
Pukeko are territorial, and aggressive interactions between birds from neighbouring groups are common. Such territorial interactions are noisy affairs and often involve several birds from each group. Aggressive interactions typically begin with ritualised posturing that emphasises the bird’s size and also display the frontal shield ornament. Occasionally, aggressive interactions escalate to full on fights where individuals bite and kick one another. Territorial defence is typically performed by males.
Adult pukeko have few natural predators. Juvenile birds are often targeted by swamp harriers, but adult birds will fight vigorously to defend their offspring. Pukeko have been observed attacking cats and stoats.
Pukeko are primarily vegetarian, but animal foods make up a small proportion of the diet. Most common foods are the stems, shoots, leaves and seeds of grasses (e.g. Poa, Glyceria, and Anthoxanthum spp.), sedges (e.g. Carex and Scirpus spp.), rushes (Juncus spp.), clover (Trifolium spp.) and bullrush (Typha spp.). They also eat garden vegetables and crop plants. Animal foods consist mostly of insects, spiders and earthworms however there are rare reports of pukeko taking larger prey such as frogs, lizards, fish and nestling birds. The bill is used to cut, rip or dig up plants which are typically held and manipulated in the foot (i.e. ‘parrot style’) as they are eaten.
Carrol, A.L.K. 1966. Food habits of pukeko (Porphyrio melanotus Temminck). Notornis 13: 133-141.
Clapperton, B.K.; Jenkins, P.F. 1984. Vocal repertoire of the pukeko (Aves: Rallidae). New Zealand Journal of Zoology 11: 71-84
Craig, J.L. 1977. The behaviour of the pukeko, Porphyrio porphyrio melanotus. New Zealand Journal of Zoology 4: 413-433
Craig, J.L. 1980. Pair and group breeding behaviour of a communal gallinule, the pukeko, Porphyrio porphyrio. Animal Behavior 32: 23-32
del Hoyo, J.; Elliot, A.; Sargatal, J. (eds.) 1996. Handbook of the birds of the world. Vol. 3, hoatzins to auks. Lynx Edicions,Barcelona.
Jamieson, I.G. 1997. Testing reproductive skew models in a communally breeding bird, the pukeko Porphyrio porphyrio. Proceedings of Royal Society of London B 264: 335-340.
Marchant, S.; Higgins, P.J. (eds) 1993. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic birds. Vol. 2, raptors to lapwings.OxfordUniversity Press, Melbourne.
Miskelly, C.M.; Crossland, A.C.; Sagar, P.M.; Saville, I.; Tennyson, A.J.D.; Bell, E.A. 2017. Vagrant and extra-limital records accepted by the Birds New Zealand Records Appraisal Committee 2015-2016. Notornis 64: 57-67.
Sutton, R.R. 1967. Strong homing instinct in a pukeko. Notornis 14: 221.
Taylor, B; van Perlo, B. 1998. A guide to rails, crakes, gallinules and coots of the World. Pica Press, Sussex.
Dey, C.; Jamieson, I. 2013 [updated 2017]. Pukeko. In Miskelly, C.M. (ed.) New Zealand Birds Online. www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz
- Breeding season
- Egg laying dates
- Social structure
- co-operative breeding groups, monogamous
- Breeding season
- Nest type
- floating platform, ground-level hollow
- Nest description
- Large nest bowl composed of stem and leaves of plants, usually constructed on a platform of beaten-down vegetation. Often adjacent vegetation is pulled over the nest to provide additional concealment. Nests are often built near or over water and have one or more access ramps for nestlings.
- Nest height (mean)
- 0.40 m
- Nest height (min)
- 0.00 m
- Nest height (max)
- 0.80 m
- Maximum number of successful broods
- Clutch size (mean)
- Clutch size (min)
- Clutch size (max)
- Mean egg dimensions (length)
- 52.00 mm
- Mean egg dimensions (width)
- 36.00 mm
- Egg colour
- Light brown with dark brown or grey spots and blotches
- Egg laying dates
- Interval between eggs in a clutch
- 1-2 days
- Incubation behaviour
- co-operative breeding groups
- Incubation length (mean)
- 25 days
- Incubation length (min)
- Incubation length (max)
- Nestling type
- Nestling period (mean)
- 6 days
- Nestling period (min)
- 4 days
- Nestling period (max)
- Age at fledging (mean)
- 60 days
- Age at independence (mean)
- Approximately 60 days
- Age at first breeding (typical)
- 2 years
- Age at first breeding (min)
- Maximum longevity
- 9 years
- Maximum dispersal
- >100 km