Purple Gallinule Porphyrio martinica

Richard L. West and Gene K. Hess
Version: 1.0 — Published March 4, 2020
Text last updated January 1, 2002


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Walking, Hopping, Climbing, Etc

Long toes and light weight enable species to walk freely on water lilies and other floating vegetation, on uneven surfaces of tangled masses of grass stems, and along muddy margins. Climbs easily through bushes and trees up to nearly 20 m from ground (Gross and Van Tyne 1929, Mulholland 1983). As it walks, neck is alternately bridled up or thrown forward, and short, black-and-white tail is changed from a semierect to a perpendicular position (Gosse and Hill 1847). Jerking motions of tail are quick and repeated often; curious appearance (Audubon 1838b).

On flushing, may fly to outer branches of a dense thicket, where it clambers awkwardly about branches, balancing with half-spread wings and twitching its tail (Gross and Van Tyne 1929). When adult calls large young for food, young hold their wings high in the air as they balance and run rapidly to keep pads from sinking under them (Stoddard 1978). Waves wings above body when running rapidly over floating vegetation, perhaps for a combination of balance, speed, and semiflight (RLW).


Typical flight over breeding marshes is weak, slow, with yellow legs hanging down, and not long and protracted; hovers feebly along, just clearing tops of vegetation, and then suddenly drops down out of sight (Bent 1926). When taking flight, capable of rising directly, but not far, out of water. Legs dangle at first, then trail behind, held together with feet crossed as smooth flight is attained; held bent and drawn close to body in a short flutter. Alights with legs held far forward and can come to a sudden stop on lily pads or reed stems. (Slud 1964, Sick 1993). Like most rails, probably not a sufficiently strong flier to overcome much of a headwind, so would be carried along in direction of the wind until reaching land (Olson 1973b).

Swimming And Diving

Swims and dives readily. When swimming in full security, it throws its head forward at every propelling motion of its feet (Audubon 1838b). In escape, dives and can remain underwater, rising with only point of its bill out of water (Wayne 1910).


Preening, Head-Scratching, Stretching, Bathing, Etc

No information.

Sleeping, Roosting, Sunbathing

Little known. Although normally seen low in watery places, also perches 2 or 3 m high in bushes (Audubon 1838b).

Daily Time Budget

Little known. In a s. Texas study in a breeding area scanned at intervals from a tower, feeding noted in 54 of 99 observations, territorial encounters in 10, swimming 9, preening 8, and resting 5, calling 3, flying 2, incubating 2, and unknown 6 (Reagan 1977). Since individuals observed remained concealed much of the time, data are biased toward more obvious behaviors. In a more rigorous Costa Rican study of 20 individuals of a marked breeding population, adults foraged 40% of the time (n = 240 h) under observation and consumed food 14% (total 54%) of the time, leaving 46% for other activities; juveniles foraged 43% and consumed food 23% of the time. Both adults and juveniles consumed plants in 96% of observations of consumption and animal matter in 4% (Hunter 1986).

Agonistic Behavior

From Hunter 1986, unless otherwise stated. While observations were made on nonmigratory breeding groups in Costa Rica, they generally apply to migratory pairs in North America (RLW).

Physical Interactions

Territorial interactions involve adults of both sexes and sometimes juveniles. When neighbors of either sex clashed at ill-defined borders, confrontations sometimes escalated into physical combat in which one would fly up and strike the other with its feet; also pecks. Sometimes a fight began when an adult attacked a neighboring juvenile. Juvenile would run to center of its territory and older birds would chase intruder away (Krekorian 1978, Hunter 1986). Within a family group, melees broke out during competition for large morsels of food, such as a frog. The tugging and pulling that ensued resulted in tearing the food into smaller pieces that could be consumed. See Food habits: feeding, above, and Spacing, below.

Communicative Interactions

During border confrontations, if one individual strayed into another's territory, birds Stare at one another, usually in an erect stance with feathers sleeked and body drawn up vertically. Erect stance similar to alert position described for other gallinules (Ridpath 1972, Garnett 1978). Alert posture also used when frightened by a loud noise or movement in the water.

After 10–20 s of Staring, one bird (usually the intruder) assumes Heart Posture (see Sexual behavior, below) with its back to the other. The other then also assumes Heart Posture, or walks stiffly around intruder with its wings raised over its back, body feathers elevated, and neck toward its breast. Sometimes defender pecks at water or ground in a hurried fashion. Generally intruder comes out of Heart Posture and walks off, back into its territory (Hunter 1986). Heart Posture, a submissive display used by either sex in several contexts, is initiated by facing away, holding body upright with head and neck withdrawn, bill depressed and tail lowered toward ground, and wings elevated and held behind back so that primaries come together just above tail, forming a heartlike shape when viewed from behind. This display, similarly described in Georgia by Meanley (Meanley 1963b) and described as Squat Arch in Louisiana by Helm (Helm 1982), is very much like the precopulatory hunch described for Purple Swamp Hen (Craig 1974b, Hunter 1986).

In a Bow, an approaching bird of either sex stops walking, lowers its neck, and points its head and bill down so that bill almost touches ground, lifts its body and tail vertically in the air, extends its wings and holds them so primaries touch over back. White undertail coverts are conspicuous from sides and back of Bowing bird. Bow used when 2 individuals meet and outcome of meeting is uncertain. Chasing a common behavior in territorial defense; owner runs or flies at intruder; occasionally seen within pairs (Hunter 1986).



Nature and Extent of Territory. Territories established after pair formation and prior to nesting, and maintained throughout brood-rearing (Hunter 1986, Helm 1994). Pairs highly territorial during breeding season, but territories break down in midwinter in central Florida, at which time residential birds from several territories will share same feeding station (RLW). In Costa Rica, nonbreeding floaters shared communal feeding areas that had less vegetation and were unsuitable for breeding. Floaters did not flock together nor defend a territory. They remained floaters until a suitable territory opened up (Hunter 1986). Home range (minimum polygon method) for 4 nesting Purple Gallinules as established by radiotelemetry was 1.03 ha in a Louisiana impoundment (range 0.63–1.68; Matthews 1983b).

Manner of Establishing and Maintaining Territory. Territorial defense among Purple Gallinules rarely includes fighting. Charging and Chasing more common. Resident bird often Bows (see Agonistic behavior, above) on edge of its territory following a confrontation (Helm 1982). Territorial defense more intense in a Costa Rican resident population, where only 28 of 94 border confrontations observed did not involve actual fighting (Hunter 1986). Confrontations escalated by one bird flying up and striking the other with its feet. If the other did not run, they faced each other and one would charge and the other strike with its feet. The struggling birds would fall and grapple with their feet. Sometimes their legs would interlock and they would try to rip at each other's upper body with their bills. Other members of fighting bird's breeding group would often gather around, some pecking at opposing combatant. Throughout struggle, fighters called loudly; sometimes birds from more distant territories approached the melee. Once fighting individuals pulled apart, they flew up and tried to strike one another's bodies with their feet. Occasionally, when one bird ran or flew at its opponent, the other would retreat into water, where it submerged with only its head above water. Attacking bird would fly at submerged bird, land on its back, and peck at its head. Attacker would then release its opponent after several seconds and fly back to join its group.

When a nonterritorial bird intruded on a territory, the owner ran or flew at the intruder and chased it off the territory. Intruder quickly left, and confrontations rarely escalated beyond Staring and Chase stage (Krekorian 1978, Hunter 1986). Also in Costa Rica, 3 occasions reported of noisy fights between ≥2 individuals from each of 2 families. Other members of both (extended) families gathered at the site of the fight so that as many as 10 adult-plumaged birds could be seen at one time. Fighting individuals repeatedly flapped wings and kicked each other. In one instance, juveniles of one family began fighting intruding adults near territorial border. Two home adults flew to site of the fight, fight soon stopped, and 2 intruders left area. Juveniles of 2 families per-formed some type of defense 18 times during 213 h of observation; 8 of 18 of the defensive actions were directed against conspecific birds. In 2 families, 3 adults were observed participating in defense, establishing that nonparent adults were sometimes involved (Krekorian 1978).

Interpecific Territoriality. Arrival in Gulf states in mid-Apr coincides with firm establishment of territories by early-nesting Common Moorhens. The 2 species compete for nesting habitat (Reagan 1977). Common Moorhens appear to be competitively superior; a short charge or chase is sufficient to send an intruding Purple Gallinule into flight (Helm 1982). Purple Gallinules consistently appear to be present in smaller numbers than Common Moorhens when nesting sympatrically in natural wetlands. A pair of Purple Gallinules with young 1–2 wk old, upon intruding into territory of Common Moorhens with young 4 wk old, was charged by the moorhen group. When 1 Purple Gallinule chick became trapped, it was viciously attacked by an adult and 3 young moorhens. Adult gallinules charged and successfully rescued young chick from what appeared to be certain death (Helm 1982).

In s. Louisiana, where abundant Boat-tailed Grackles (Quiscalus major) nest in emergent vegetation bordering waterways, a Purple Gallinule is immediately attacked if it alights in a shrub occupied by nesting grackles. Gallinules often forced to ground by grackles as they fly over grackle nesting areas (Helm 1982).

In Costa Rica, helpers (both adults and juveniles) participate in territory and chick defense. Juveniles performed some type of defense 18 times during 213 h they were observed; 72% percent of these defensive actions involved territorial defense and 56% (10 of 18) were against birds of other species. Most of heterospecific defense involves Northern Jacanas (Jacana spinosa), the rest against Common Moorhens (Krekorian 1978).

Individual Distance

In a Colombian rice field, internest distance was usually ≥40 m, although 2 nests were only 11 m apart. Density ranged from 21 to 27 adults/ha, but data are incomplete because more nests might have been built if the insecticide endrin had not been sprayed (Mckay 1981).

Sexual Behavior

Mating System And Sex Ratio

In U.S., monogamous without adult helpers (Helm 1994). In Costa Rica, where ≥2 adults are often present in families, species apparently monogamous (families start with just 2 adults), but possibility of simultaneous polyandry as exhibited by Tasmanian Native-hen (Gallinula mortierii; Ridpath 1972) could not be dismissed. In another Costa Rican study, a male copulated with 2 females on territory but only 1 produced eggs; extra adults in family groups here attributed to lack of suitable habitat (Hunter Hunter 1986, Hunter 1987a). Large size of some clutches found in Louisiana rice fields (Helm 1982) suggests that ≥1 female responsible. No information on sex ratio.

Pair Bond

Most frequently seen precopulatory display is Swaying, stepping stiffly from one foot to the other (Figure 5 in Meanley 1963b, Helm 1982), also known as Stamping (Hunter 1986). Following an early unreceptive period, Swaying display usually followed by Squat Arch or Heart Posture display (see above) and male mounting (Helm 1982, Hunter 1986). If mate approaches within 3 m, swaying bird crouches lower and tucks wings closer into its body—a Squat Arch (Helm 1982). Arching female sometimes runs out from under male after one foot is placed on her back. Following early unreceptive period, Swaying display is usually followed by Squat Arch and male mounting. Sequences that eventually lead to coition sometimes initiated by the 2 birds swaying simultaneously (Helm 1982).

Coition requires 3–5 s; male crouches on its tarsi on female's back, flaps its wings, moves its feet, and extends its head forward to maintain balance, as it lowers its tail to one side of female's elevated tail to achieve cloacal contact; then dismounts with a wing flap. Male normally Sways following coition as female preens. Reverse copulations sometimes attempted but do not lead to coition. Fertilization displays and copulation sometimes occur during incubation or after young have hatched. Multiple coitions not reported (Helm 1982, Hunter 1986).

Social and Interspecific Behavior

Degree Of Sociality

Social structure of migratory Purple Gallinules in North America usually limited to a breeding pair and their hatch-year young. These family units are maintained through breeding season (Helm 1994). Under ideal conditions, >1 brood may be attempted/yr (Helm 1982, RLW). Nonmigratory groups of Purple Gallinules in Costa Rica and Panama have a more elaborate social structure where adult helpers and old and young juvenile helpers aid mated pair with feeding and defending chicks and territories (Krekorian 1978, Hunter 1987a).


None known.

Nonpredatory Interspecific Interactions

None outside of territorial defense.


Kinds Of Predators; Manner Of Predation

A Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) nest in n. Florida contained remains of an adult Purple Gallinule (Millsap 2001). Boat-tailed Grackles reported to be egg predators in Texas and Louisiana (Cottam and Glazener 1959, Helm 1982). A Common Moorhen carried off an egg by sticking its bill through it (Nicholson 1929b). Predation of Purple Gallinule by Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) reported in Costa Rica (Araya et al. 1992). American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) reported to take nests on floating mats in Louisiana; such predation marked by a swath through vegetation and total destruction of nest (Helm 1982). Alligators may also have a salutary effect, their presence discouraging terrestrial predators from swimming out to nesting islands (Post and Seals 2000). Raccoons (Procyon lotor) raid nests, particularly those located adjacent to shell roads and levees in Louisiana (Helm 1982). Snapping turtles (Cheldra serpentina) identified as main predator at a Costa Rican site. Turtle caught gallinule by partly submerged foot or leg as bird walked on floating vegetation. In 4 of 8 observations, bird was able to wrench itself free by pulling its leg and wildly beating its wings. If not, turtle hung on resolutely and pulled bird under when it became exhausted. Some birds struggled for >1 h before going under (Hunter 1986).

Rodents, perhaps marsh rice rats (Oryzomys palustris), are suspected predators of nests in Louisiana rice fields during low water (Helm 1982). At an Ohio breeding pond, where young were not seen to fledge, bullfrogs were suspected of preying on young gallinules (Trautman and Glines 1964). Local lore in Polk Co., FL, held that river otters (Lutra canadensis) were predators (RLW). Spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus) suspected predators in Costa Rica (Hunter 1986). Attempted predation by chicken snake (probably Elaphe obsoleta) and banded water snake (Natrix fasciata) reported in Florida (Howell 1932, Hosford 1967).

Response To Predators

When startled, usually tries to reach safety by running and beating its wings (Slud 1964). Swims easily, usually in partial cover; presence of alligators in some favored waters tends to inhibit excursions into exposed situations (Stoddard 1978). Adept from earliest age at taking cover quickly and insistent on keeping within immediate reach of it. When Black Vultures (Cathartes aura) flew over low, gallinules flattened their bodies as close to ground as possible, holding that position until vultures had passed (Hunter 1986). An incubating gallinule slipped off nest quietly and pursued a chicken snake, climbing into bushes and attacking snake vigorously until it made off (Howell 1932).

When approached by humans, some incubating individuals ran several meters and, instead of flushing, lowered their bodies 2–3 cm underwater, flattened out, and remained completely submerged with eyes closed. Colombian farm workers captured such submerged birds by hand for use as food (Mckay 1981).

Recommended Citation

West, R. L. and G. K. Hess (2020). Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinica), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.purgal2.01