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Australasian swamphen

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Australasian swamphen
P. m. melanotus, Northern Territory, Australia
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Gruiformes
Family: Rallidae
Genus: Porphyrio
P. melanotus
Binomial name
Porphyrio melanotus
Temminck, 1820

Porphyrio porphyrio melanotus

The Australasian swamphen (Porphyrio melanotus) is a species of swamphen (Porphyrio) occurring in eastern Indonesia (the Moluccas, Aru and Kai Islands), Papua New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand. In New Zealand, it is known as the pūkeko. The species used to be considered a subspecies of the purple swamphen.


The Australasian swamphen occurs in mainland Australia, eastern Indonesia, the Moluccas, Aru and Kai Islands, and in Papua New Guinea. It is also found on New Zealand's main islands and in the Chatham and Kermadec Islands. It has a small shield, black upperparts, and a purple throat and breast. P. p. pelewensis (Hartlaub & Finsch, 1872) from Palau, resembles melanotus but has greener upperparts and is smaller. P. p. melanopterus (Bonaparte, 1856) is found from the Lesser Sundas and Moluccas to New Guinea. It is as melanotus but smaller, more variable and less blue in the upperparts. P. p. bellus (Gould, 1820) from Western Australia is as melanotus but has a cerulean blue throat and breast. P. p. samoensis (Peale, 1848) occurs from New Guinea to New Caledonia and Samoa, and is as melanotus but smaller, with a brown tinge on the back.

In flight in Pāuatahanui Wildlife Reserve, Wellington, New Zealand


The Australasian swamphen has five subspecies distributed as follows:[1]

P. m. melanopterus – north, southeast Sulawesi, Moluccas, Lesser Sundas and New Guinea region.

P. m. pelewensis – Palau (west Caroline Islands, west Micronesia).

P. m. melanotus – north, east Australia, Tasmania, Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands (far east of Australia) and North, South, Stewart, Kermadec (northeast of North Island) and Chatham Island (east of South Island; New Zealand).

P. m. bellus – far southwest Western Australia (southwest Australia).

P. m. samoensis – Admiralty Islands to New Caledonia, Solomon Islands, Fiji and Samoa.

Establishment in New Zealand[edit]

According to the Heather and Robertson Field Guide,[2][page needed] the bird seems to have become established in New Zealand about 1000 years ago. According to Millener (1981), it invaded from Australia less than 1,000 years ago. It is also assumed to have spread from Australia to New Guinea.[3] Some assume that it became established before humans in New Zealand, but all known fossils occur in sites younger than 400 years and there is no evidence that they were on the main islands of New Zealand before the Māori arrived.[4] East Coast Māori say they came to New Zealand on the Horouta canoe which arrived about 24 generations ago.[5] The Aotea tribe of the West Coast say that their ancestors introduced pūkeko in the Aotea canoe.[citation needed]

In support of the belief that it is a good flyer, and may have self-introduced, a dead pūkeko was found on L'Esperance Rock, a tiny, isolated rock in the Kermadec group, more than 200 km from the nearest established population.[6] This demonstrates the ability of swamphens to fly great distances over the sea.[4] This ability to disperse is not unique to swamphens, but is common to all continental Rallidae, hence they are often found on remote islands.


The New Zealand population (along with green-yellow swamphens in Tasmania) are possibly slightly larger than mainland Australian birds, but are otherwise identical.[7] When threatened, they will often walk away from danger rather than fly. When they fly, take-offs and landings are clumsy, and short flight distances are preferred.[8]


Australasian swamphens are considered to be the ancestors of several island species including the extinct Lord Howe swamphen and two species of takahē in New Zealand.[9][10][11] On islands where closely related species have become extinct or declined due to human interference, such as New Zealand or New Caledonia, this species has established itself relatively recently.[12]

Defence and behaviour[edit]

They live in groups of 3–12 individuals and are known to group together and shriek loudly to defend nests successfully during attacks by Australasian harriers. When unsuccessful at repelling predators, they may abandon their nest sites. A recent arrival to New Zealand, they have thrived in an environment that now contains introduced predators such as cats, rodents and mustelids (Brunin and Jamieson, 1995).

A juvenile

In Polynesian culture[edit]

The colour red was associated with nobility and power by Māori in New Zealand, so the bird was held in high esteem and held as a chiefly pet because of its red beak and legs.[13] In Samoa, it is called manuali'i (literally, "chiefly bird"). Red was the prized color of Polynesian aristocracy and while birds with red plumage (such as the red-tailed tropicbird, some Hawaiian honeycreepers like the ʻiʻiwi and maroon shining parrot) were highly prized, the swamphen was unique in deriving its prestige not from plumage but from its reddish face, beak, and legs. In old Samoa only chiefs could keep such birds as pets, and early European sailors noticed tethered and/or caged swamphens treated by Samoan chiefs as tamed pets. Some Samoans also considered the swamphen to be the incarnation of a mischievous, aggressive demon called Vave.[14] There is no tradition of swamphens being taken as sport game or poultry food, except perhaps in time of necessity.

Māori metaphor[edit]

Pūkeko are known for their bold scheming and determination. In times past, they raided gardens for kūmara (sweet potato) and taro. A stubborn, annoying person was compared metaphorically to the bird, and was said to have pūkeko ears (taringa Pākura, using Pākura, another Māori word for the pūkeko).[15][16][17] They are known to steal eggs from each other and this is an indication of their character.

Māori mythology[edit]

In New Zealand, the pūkeko is mentioned in the Māori myth "How the Kiwi lost her wings" in which several birds of the forest are asked to come down from the trees to eat the bugs on the ground and save the forest, but all give excuses except the kiwi who is willing to give up his colours and the ability to fly. The pūkeko's excuse is that it looks too damp down there, and he does not want to get his feet wet. The pūkeko is punished for his reluctance and told he must now live forever in the swamps.

By one account, the pūkeko is the spawn of Punga (the ancestor of sharks and reptiles – enemies of the people) but was claimed by relative (and high chief) Tāwhaki. Tāwhaki cut himself while cutting timber and so daubed the pūkeko's forehead with his own blood to signify their bond. So the mischievous pūkeko gets his character from Punga and his noble badge from Tāwhaki.[16]

Hunting and conservation[edit]

Traffic sign in New Zealand cautioning drivers of nearby pūkeko

In New Zealand, they are protected as native gamebirds, meaning they may be hunted only under licence (from Fish and Game) during the duck shooting season. Sometimes there is an extended season on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand. They are not generally hunted for food and most are not collected after the hunting session. They were sometimes eaten by Māori but were considered poor food,[16] being sinewy and tough. In a written account given over 100 years ago, Māori were described as trapping pūkeko (near Lake Taupō). They would choose a suitable place where pūkeko were known to feed, and drive a series of stakes into the ground. These stakes were connected by a fine flax string. Hair-like nooses (made from cabbage tree fibre) were then dangled at the appropriate height, from the flax string, to catch pūkeko as they fed after dusk, in the low light conditions.[18]

In New Zealand and Australia populations have expanded due to the creation of new artificial lakes and ponds. The subspecies endemic to Palau has been considered endangered as well,[19] although a 2005 survey found that the subspecies, while potentially threatened, is at least now still common.[20]

Life cycle[edit]

Nesting, breeding and rearing are as for the general species, see purple swamphen. In New Zealand they nest, typically well hidden in the middle of a clump of raupō, between August (end of winter) and March (start of autumn). Most eggs are laid between August and February with breeding reaching a peak in spring between September and December. New Zealand pūkeko are joint-nesters and multiple females will lay their eggs in the same nest.[21] The recent development of a useful PCR-based genetic marker to determine the sex of pūkeko has revealed that there is no evidence of sex ratio bias in hatching-order. Patterns of growth, survivorship and adult dominance in this species is therefore attributed to hatching order rather than offspring sex [22]

Roadside behaviour[edit]

Birds are often seen singly, or in groups of two to three, foraging for food beside motorways or roadside ditches, and collecting grit. A study showed that the preferred grit colour is red (followed by yellow and lastly blue) even though red grit is less common.[23] Roadkill is a cause of mortality.


  1. ^ "Australasian Swamphen – Porphyrio melanotus".
  2. ^ Heather, Barrie D.; Robertson, Hugh (2005). The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand (revised ed.). Viking. ISBN 9780143020400. Retrieved 2019-05-26.
  3. ^ "Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio)". Birds in Backyards Fact sheet. Birds in Backyards. 2010. Retrieved 2010-10-02.
  4. ^ a b Holdaway, Richard N.; Worthy, Trevor H.; Tennyson, Alan J. D. (2001). "A working list of breeding bird species of the New Zealand region at first human contact". New Zealand Journal of Zoology. 28 (2): 119–187. doi:10.1080/03014223.2001.9518262.
  5. ^ Best, Elsdon. Forest Lore of the Māori.
  6. ^ Tennyson & Taylor (1989).
  7. ^ Marchant, S.; Higgins, P. J., eds. (1993). Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds: Volume 2, Raptors to Lapwings. Melbourne: Oxford University Press. p. 590. ISBN 978-0-19-553244-9.
  8. ^ Woodhouse, Graeme. "New Zealand Ecology – Takahē". TerraNature. Retrieved 2010-10-01.
  9. ^ Trewick, S.A. (1996). "Morphology and evolution of two takahe: flightless rails of New Zealand". Journal of Zoology. 238 (2): 221–237. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7998.1996.tb05391.x.
  10. ^ Trewick, S. A. (1997). "Flightlessness and Phylogeny amongst Endemic Rails (Aves: Rallidae) of the New Zealand Region". Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences. 352 (1352): 429–446. doi:10.1098/rstb.1997.0031. PMC 1691940. PMID 9163823.
  11. ^ Gerard Hutching (2009-03-01). "Large forest birds – Takahe". Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Ministry for Culture and Heritage / Te Manatu-Taonga. Retrieved 2010-10-02.
  12. ^ Steadman D, (2006). Extinction and Biogeography in Tropical Pacific Birds, University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-77142-7
  13. ^ Troup, Christina (2009-03-01). "Wetland birds – Pukeko and Australian coots". Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Ministry for Culture and Heritage / Te Manatu-Taonga. Retrieved 2010-10-02.
  14. ^ Corey & Shirley Muse, "The Birds and Birdlore of Samoa," 1982.
  15. ^ Keane, Kelly (2009-03-01). "Nga- manu – birds – Sayings, metaphors and stories". Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Ministry for Culture and Heritage / Te Manatu-Taonga. Retrieved 2010-10-02.
  16. ^ a b c Orbell, Margaret (2003). Birds of Aotearoa. Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd. pp. 118–120. ISBN 978-0-7900-0909-4.
  17. ^ "Pākura" in Māori Dictionary, http://maoridictionary.co.nz/search?idiom=&phrase=&proverb=&loan=&histLoanWords=&keywords=pakura
  18. ^ Buller, Walter (1873). A history of the birds of New Zealand.
  19. ^ Taylor, P. B. (1996). "Family Rallidae (Rails, Gallinules and Coots)". In: del Hoyo, Josep; Elliott, Andrew & Sargatal, Jordi (eds.) : Handbook of Birds of the World Vol. 3 (Hoatzin to Auks): 197, Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. ISBN 84-87334-20-2
  20. ^ Vanderwerf, Eric; Wiles, Gary; Marshall, Ann; Knetch, Melia (2006). "Observations of migrants and other birds in Palau, April–May 2005, including the first Micronesian record of a Richard's Pipit". Micronesica. 39 (1): 11–29. ISSN 0026-279X.
  21. ^ Craig, J. L. (1980). "Pair and group breeding behaviour of a communal gallinule, the Pukeko, Porphyrio p. melanotus". Animal Behaviour. 28 (2): 593–603. doi:10.1016/S0003-3472(80)80068-6. S2CID 54254574.
  22. ^ Healey, M. R.; Hing, J. S.; Dey, C.J.; Quinn, J. S. (2017). "A novel PCR-based genetic marker shows that sex of offspring does not account for hatch-order effects on growth, survival and dominance in Pūkeko Porphyrio melanotus melanotus". Ibis. 159 (4): 725–733. doi:10.1111/ibi.12486.
  23. ^ Clare Washington (Lincoln University) did a study in Christchurch – found in ASSAB 2000 27th annual conference

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