Pūkeko is the common name, derived from the Māori language, for the Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) in New Zealand. The subspecies occurring there is Porphyrio porphyrio melanotus, which is also found elsewhere in Australasia, including, in eastern Indonesia, the Mollucas, Aru and Kai Islands, as well as in Papua New Guinea and Australia.
Distribution in New Zealand
Pūkekos are found on New Zealand's main islands and in the Chatham and Kermadec Islands.
Establishment in New Zealand
According to the Heather and Robertson Field Guide, 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. Some assume that it became established before humans in New Zealand but all fossil occurrences are 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 (Worthy & Holdaway 1996). It may have been introduced by the ancestors of Māori. East Coast Māori say they were brought to New Zealand on the Harouta canoe which arrived about 24 generations ago. The Aotea tribe of the West Coast say the Pūkeko was introduced by their ancestors in a boat called the Aotea.
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 (Tennyson & Taylor 1989). This demonstrates the ability of swamphens to fly great distances over the sea.
This ability to disperse is not unique to swamphens, but is common to all continental Rallidae, hence they are often found on remote islands.
Pūkekos (along with Purple Swamphens in Tasmania) are possibly slightly larger than mainland Australian birds, but are otherwise identical.
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..
The Takahē, a close relative
The Takahē, a flightless endemic bird of New Zealand has the Purple Swamphen as its closest relative, though its ancestor arrived in New Zealand, probably millions of years ago from Australia, long before the Purple Swamphen did.
Takahē are approximately three times heavier than Pūkeko (to about 3 kg), having evolved in an environment free from humans and ground predators.
Introduced predators now threaten the Takahē with extinction.
Defence and behaviour
As a recent arrival to New Zealand, Pūkeko have thrived in an environment that now contains introduced predators such as cats, rodents and mustelids (Brunin and Jamieson, 1995). 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.
In Māori culture
The colour red was associated with nobility and power by Māori so the Pūkeko was held in high esteem because of its red beak and legs.
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). They are known to steal eggs from each other and this is an indication of their character.
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 Pukeko is the spawn of Punga (the ancestor of sharks and reptiles - enemies of the people) but was claimed by relative (and high chief) Tawhaki. Tawhaki cut himself while cutting timber and so daubed the Pukekos forehead with his own blood to signify their bond. So the mischievous Pukeko gets his character from Punga and his noble badge from Tawhaki.
Hunted by Māori
In a written account given over 100 years ago, Māori were described as trapping Pūkeko (near lake Taupo). 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.
Hunting today versus conservation
Pūkeko are protected as native gamebirds, meaning they may only be hunted 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. They are not generally hunted for food and most are left to rot after being killed. Conservationists argue that hunting is unnecessary and the birds do little harm, though some farmers argue otherwise. They were sometimes eaten by Maori but were considered poor food, being sinewy and tough.
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 raupo, 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.
Pukeko 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. Roadkill is a cause of mortality.
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