It is probably the bird that visitors remember most when they visit New Zealand (because they certainly won’t see a kiwi!) and it won New Zealand’s Forest and Bird Bird of the Year in 2011. If you guessed the pukeko, you’re right!
This is one strange-looking bird with a distinctive personality and I think that’s why it’s dear in the hearts of so many New Zealanders.
The pukeko (Porphyrio porphyria), called the swamphen or purple gallinule in other countries, is a member of the rail family (Rallidae) of birds. This family of birds generally prefers marsh-like areas and is characterized by having short, rounded wings. They often prefer to run to escape predators and many can’t fly although the pukeko can.
The pukeko has black upper parts and head, a purple breast, a red beak and forehead and spindly red legs. White feathers from under their tails are visible with every step and are displayed when they are alarmed. They are about 20 inches tall and live for about 5 years. Although they like swampy land, you often see them throughout New Zealand in parks or more commonly pecking alongside roadways usually in groups of two, three or more. Make that, obliviously pecking right alongside roadsides, since they seem to exhibit no fear and don’t even seem to notice the cars and logging trucks passing within several feet of them.
When you move toward a pukeko, they walk or run away in an awkward manner. When they fly their take-offs are labored with much rapid frantic wing beating, and their landings are equally clumsy-looking. Despite being birds, they look as if they don’t really want to fly unless they have to. To add to all this, they make a loud unmusical screech when disturbed. Maybe all this is partly what makes them so endearing.
Despite all this, the pukeko seems to exhibit a certain fierceness or pride, and seems to return one’s stares with a what-are-you-looking-at stare in return.
Pukekos are found throughout Australasia and believed to have spread to New Zealand from Australia perhaps 1000 years ago and become abundant only in the last few hundred years. Unlike so many of New Zealand’s birds, the pukeko is not threatened or endangered. In fact, it has actually flourished and thrived since man’s arrival.
It can even be hunted for sport here during duck-hunting season. Unlike the duck however, the meat is tough, full of sinews and difficult to prepare. Bushmen advise putting a stone in the pot when cooking pukeko. Cook together for hour hours, then throw away the pukeko and eat the stone.
They are also very popular among children and are featured in many children’s storybooks. In fact, there is even a version of the popular Christmas song here that goes—
On the first day of Christmas
My true love gave to me
A pukeko in a ponga tree . . .
Here’s a short video I took of one walking around in a park although he’s limping. Pukekos unfortunately are also common road kill because of their roadside habits.