Purple Gallinule–the prettiest swamp chicken!

Purple Gallinule nibbles on Fireflag blossoms

“… although you may think it strange, I candidly assure you that I have experienced a thousand times more pleasure while looking at the Purple Gallinule flirting its tail while gaily moving over the broad leaves of the water-lily, than I have ever done while silently sitting in the corner of a crowded apartment, gazing on the flutterings of gaudy fans and the wavings of flowing plumes. Would that I were once more extended on some green grassy couch, in my native Louisiana, or that I lay concealed under some beautiful tree, overhanging the dark bayou, on whose waters the bird of beauty is wont to display its graceful movements, and the rich hues of its glossy plumage! Methinks I now see the charming creature gliding sylph-like over the leaves that cover the lake, with the aid of her lengthened toes, so admirably adapted for the purpose…”      —  John James Audubon, Ornithological Biography, Vol III  



The wetlands of South Florida harbor a group of birds of the Family Rallidae sometimes called ‘swamp chickens or swamp hens’. In fact in many areas these are considered game birds.  Most people here are quite familiar with the American Coot and the Common Moorhen members of the rail family. But, here in South Florida’s wetland areas lives a stunningly beautiful species of rail known as the American Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinicus) or sometimes for its lemon yellow legs, the Yellow-legged Gallinule. Although its species name Porphyrio is derived from the Greek porphyra, meaning  “purple pigment” which aims itself at this birds most defining color. And against a field of green, purple is what your eye admires.

The adult Purple gallinule has large yellow feet with long toes. Its plumage fairly iridesces in the light and ranges in hue from purple to blue with shades of green. Under tail feathers are white. The bill is bright red,  tipped with yellow and features a frontal shield extension on its forehead which is pale blue in color.The pale blue forehead shield color of the Purple Gallinule differentiates it from brethren such as the Common Moorhen whose frontal shield is as fire-engine red as the bill.

Gallinules eat a variety of plant and animal material from insects, frogs and snails to aquatic and terrestrial plants. I have never witnessed a Purple Gallinule feasting on an insect, but the specimens I have enjoyed watching REALLY do love the tender blossoms of the aquatic Fireflag plant and the Purple flower spires of the aquatic Pickerel weed. It is a delicate and entertaining high wire act watching these colorful ‘swamp chickens’ negotiate the aquatic plants in quest of a tender flowery nibble. Broad leaves and slender stems wave and flex with movement of bird and sultry breeze and yet they are equipped to hang in for the prize.

Fireflag Blossoms--delicate delicacy of the Purple Gallinule

Blossoms of the aquatic fireflag plant — a yummy treat for Purple Gallinules!!

I have to confess to consistently trying for a nice shot of these flowers draping down so nicely from such thin shoots and being defeated by the slightest breeze!! They are lovely though and mostly do come adorned with insects.


Purple Gallinule nibbles on Fireflag blossoms


Purple Gallinule balances on leaves and stems of fireflag seeking its delicate purple blossoms

Afternoon sun shows off the irridescence hues of the Purple Gallinule during its high wire act on the stems of pickerel weed.

This specimen looks lovely in the light as it traipses across the wetland’s  high wire of pickerel weed stems!

Aquatic Pickerel Weed Spires--tempting treat for the Purple Gallinule

Ahh, another yummy treat!! —These are the flowery spires of the aquatic pickerel weed plant. Up close the tiny florets curl up a bit like ribbon candy.

Moorhen--in the Rail family Rallidae along with the Purple Gallinule

Another member of Rallidae, the Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) featuring its fire-engine red frontal shield.




~ by Judy on June 18, 2014.

34 Responses to “Purple Gallinule–the prettiest swamp chicken!”

  1. Judy, Great colors!! Jack

    • This bird is visually beautiful in the wild…just looks so iridescent in the sunlight and is so pleasing to watch!!

  2. goodness it’s a gorgeous bird! we ‘should’ have them here in ecuador, but i have not seen one. (yet!))

  3. really outstanding photos!! congrats!! I’d love to see one of these magnificent birds!!

  4. Great shots of this beautiful swamp chicken with its long toes. Too bad it is confined to the South.

  5. What an extremely colorful bird, and what a funny moniker – swamp chicken! Great photos as usual, Judy.

  6. Terrific shots of these amazing and colorful birds!

    • Ever see them in your Carolina marsh?? Not sure exactly of their range, but your marsh in the warm season could be a habitat if well vegetated.

  7. I’ve only ever seen these as drawings or paintings in books. Some great shots here.

  8. Outstanding work! People don’t realize how tough it is to get the exposure settings right to get ALL the colors, without burning out that forehead shield. Kudos. — And, ohbytheway, those swamp chickens from hell (red AND purple) are all in league against me! They have the most obnoxious laugh – and they bust a gut laughing at me every time I come plodding down the trail. Thanks to them, every wild creature within a half a mile knows jimbey is coming. I must be one of the world’s greatest experts on the hind ends of all sorts of critters (as they run/fly/swim/slither away from me). All because of that warning gale of derisive laughter. In their defense, I DO look pretty silly when I’m all decked out in my hiking gear. All kidding aside though, those are some wonderful shots of those wonderful birds that coulda been designed by a team of Disney animators!

    • Its true their colors seem to be designed for some other purpose than blending in and hiding from predators!! Something pretty for a children’s book. With exposures it can be tricky to not blow out the lighter colors trying to get good detail on the darker ones. Many times I do try and expose for the light side knowing that a blown highlight is unrecoverable mostly, while the detail is retrievable from the shadows. But, in the rush of getting such a speedy subject in focus…sometimes you do your best to just to get proper focus in the right areas.

      On your hikes ,where you can, sit for a spell and maybe the wildlife will settle down and come to you? A nice shady cool spot? You have great fun, I can tell!!

  9. The juxtaposition of the “swamp chicken” label, your first picture, and the Audubon quotation is marvelous!

    • Wow, that is such a nice thing to say!! Gives me some confidence in arranging a cohesive post beyond just sharing the image work.

  10. What a beautiful bird, Judy. And your photos of it are just splendid. You did manage to capture not only the colors but the iridescence. I can only imagine how difficult that was.

    The coot is very common around here in the winter. One or two scouts often beat the mallards and teal when it’s migration time. When I see a coot, I know the weather’s getting cold up north. In like manner, you know spring is stirring when they begin to flock up for their migration to the north. I’ve seen big groups of them in central Minnesota in the early fall, so they really do travel.

    I’ve only seen the moorhens in Louisiana, and I’ve never seen the purple gallinule. Their colors remind me of one of our songbirds — the gorgeous little painted bunting.

    In Cajun country, the coot is known as poule d’eau, which pretty much means water chicken, or swamp chicken. If you need a good recipe for poule d’eau gumbo, here it is.

    I must add that, even though the bird is the focus here, I love those swamp plants. They’re just gorgeous.

    • Their colors are a gift, just the natural state of being of this species…perfectly visible by the naked eye….and so I have found what the eye can see the camera can capture.

      Loved reading the recipe!! Coincidentally I have a friend here with the last name Daigle from Louisiana…as the recipe writer….I’ll have to ask!!

      The Purple Gallinule does occur in Texas: Click Here!

  11. Ah, some of my favorite jewels! I love how you were able to get such wonderful shots of their delicacies, too….

    • Yeah Jewels is the right word for their beautiful jewel tone colors! Glad you mentioned the delicacies LOL!! Have had so much trouble getting shots of the delicate flowers suspended from such thin stems because the slightest breeze sets them off swaying madly and they are not where I can hold them still!! One of these days I’ll hit a perfectly still day where no breath of air disturbs the most delicate of suspension…then I am sure it will be blazing hot!!

  12. Judy these photo’s are lush and rich with colour, what a beautiful bird.

  13. What’s a good recipe?

    • Jared, this I would have to research but I understand they are out there!! But, you wouldn’t dine on such a pretty bird would you? In Audubon’s day, as inconceivable as it sounds, the Snowy Egret was considered a delicacy. Hard to look at the egrets as food birds. Or the Purple Gallinule. Thanks for stopping by for a visit here in my neck of the woods.

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