ungainly 'Blue Hen' in rice country
Jay V. Huner
Purple Gallinule photograph by
Jim Jonson Photography LeCompte LA
|The Purple Gallinule is a
beautiful but ungainly waterbird often called a
"blue hen" or a "blue peter". These
long legged, web-toed birds somewhat resemble small
chicken hens when walking around the edges of ponds and
rice fields or atop water lilies and floating debris well
away from the shore.
The late George H. Lowery, Jr.,
LSU Professor of Ornithology and author of
"Louisiana Birds," considered the Purple
Gallinule to be one of the most beautiful birds in the
United States. His description of its gaudy coloration
follows [Louisiana Birds, LSU Press, Baton Rouge, LA 3rd
edition - 1974]:
Young Purple Gallinules are greenish-brown above and yellowish below and the legs and bill are yellowish brown. This color blends in well with the surroundings and surely serves as a form of camouflage.
Purple Gallinules winter in the Tropics. They arrive in our region in early-mid spring and depart from late summer to early fall. Breeding birds build nests of woven vegetation and were, in the past, considered to be pests by destroying rice plants to make their nests in rice fields. The birds were once so numerous that rice crops were said to be reduced and rice combines were clogged by the nests during harvest periods.
There is currently a "standing depredation" order that allows farmers to kill the birds outside normal hunting seasons if they can demonstrate damage to their rice crops. However, state and federal authorities do not recall the last time such action was taken. They suggest that changes in rice cultivation practices and shifts from tall to medium and short height rice varieties have likely reduced the overall Purple Gallinule populations in rice fields to the point that they are no longer nuisances. But, it is important to note that there are plenty of Purple Gallinules around.
There are regular hunting seasons for Purple Gallinules in the southern states but I don't know anyone who hunts them, or their Common Gallinule cousins. Both are said to be excellent table fare but are difficult to find in reeds and rice when frightened. Being members of the rail family, they are able to compress their bodies laterally and disappear into the densest cover.
Common Gallinules are blackish birds with red frontal shields on their heads and red bills. Common Gallinules are year round residents of the region. The American Coot is similar in overall appearance to Purple and Common gallinules but they are blackish gray and have white bills. They are present, for the most part, only during the cold months wintering in the South and breeding in the North.
So, how did the name "blue peter" originate? The term "blue" is obvious. The term "peter" comes from the call which, to some, sounds like "peter, peter, peter" repeated rapidly.
Jay V. Huner