Cherie Pittillo, “nature inspired,”zoologist, photographer, and author, explores nature everywhere she goes. She’s identified 56 bird species in her Merida, Yucatan backyard view. Her column, published on the 7th and 21st of each month, features anecdotes about birding in Merida, Yucatan and beyond.
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Purple Gallinule, Porphyrula martinicus, Gallineta Morada (Spanish)
Three weeks after my first encounter with the Purple Gallinule in Merida, I returned to Aqua Park to see if this migratory species lingered. It did. Mother Nature graced me with two hours of awe-inspiring observation.
Link to Sound: http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/2857
As I sat perched on a rock, (a change of roles for a photographer), this candy-corn-billed bird emerged along the edge of marsh plants, feeding on seeds. Sometimes it reminded me of a chicken due to its shape and how it feed on grass seeds. Then the gallinule skipped along a few lily pads to reach vegetation on the other shore. As it crept closer, I became as still as a photograph while it foraged down the water line within three feet of me. Too close to focus, yet close enough for a happy experience for me!
This foot-long bird easily walked on lily pads as those toes displaced its half-pound weight. Many lily pads slowly submerged with the bird as it hopscotched or half-flew to the next one. I wondered if our many recent rains saturated those pads as I experienced a sinking feeling.
Finally one set of lily leaves supported its weight as the gallinule tried to slip a snail out of its home. Long toes helped hold its food, even slippery shells. Its bill broke off the shell bit by bit. Bet the snail was shell-shocked.
In addition to seeds and snails, its omnivorous diet includes rice and other grains, water hyacinth flowers, fruits and berries, fish and frogs, and insects. One source stated this species may eat the eggs or chicks of the Northern Jacana, which is a common resident in Aqua Park.
Within an hour, several people arrived to photograph it from a bridge and a few families walked by to gaze at this lovely animal. Our presence on the bridge didn’t seem to disturb its feeding behavior on the lily pads below, but not when it saw a dog. When two different dogs appeared on this bridge, it squatted down slowly on the lily pad. Great camouflage!
Although I’ve spotted this species at Rio Lagartos and Cozumel, I didn’t expect it in Merida. This freshwater species lives in lagoons, swamps, lakes, and marshes from the southeastern US, Central and South America, and the West Indies. It winters from southern Florida to Argentina. In the Yucatan Peninsula some are year round residents with a separate winter migratory population.
When I watched this purplish,blue-green feathered beauty fly short distances at Aqua Park, it looked like a weak flyer as its sunlight-yellow landing gear dangled down. That’s misleading; this species is a strong flyer. Wanderers are found as far north as Canada and are seen in Europe and South Africa. John James Audubon recounted that his friend received three specimens caught on a ship 300 miles from land. One of those flew in through that ship’s cabin window.
Sexes look similar with males slightly larger. Both parents incubate the five to ten eggs and feed the chicks. When they exchange incubating duties, one partner brings a leaf to the other who inserts the leaf into the nest.
SHOCKER ALERT: This species is a game bird in thirty-one states of the US, which means it is hunted for food and sport. Luckily for this species, I read that most of the population migrates before the hunting season starts. Sources state the gallinule doesn’t taste good unless it foraged on rice before it’s shot. Then it tastes better if served on a bed of rice. With the common name of “mud hen,” that might hold a clue to its taste. Maybe beauty isn’t even skin deep.
Did you just wonder how something so beautiful could be hunted? If a species is beautiful, should it be protected more than a species that isn’t? Would you pay to conserve habitat for this species but not for a vulture? Therein lies the dichotomy of species we choose to protect. Maybe we don’t know or appreciate their roles in nature but rather how we describe it to ourselves and others.
EXPLORE NATURE WITH ALL OF ITS INHABITANTS WHETHER BEAUTIFUL OR NOT.
DISCLAIMER: DISCLAIMER: References do not agree on information about this species. Here are my resources: Sal a Pajarear Yucatan Guia de Aves, A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, Birds and Reserves of the Yucatan Peninsula, National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica, Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America, Florida’s Birds, A Handbook and Reference, www.allaboutbirds.org and http://macaulaylibrary.org/ websites from Cornell Lab of Ornithology
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