A winner is crowned

Pūkeko (Porphyrio porphyrio melanotus) from wikipedia
Forget bird of the week, here is bird of the year as voted by the New Zealand public (truthfully it was 7851 of them). This year it was taken out by the humble pūkeko (Porphyrio porphyrio melanotus). The pūkeko is a common rail that inhabits swamps and wetland, often seen at motorway verges. Sadly this tendency to hang out next to the motorway results in a fair number of deaths by car. Interestingly (to me at least), the pūkeko is a subspecies that belongs to a species complex with a broad distribution. Collectively known as the Purple Swamphen, the complex consists of 15 subspecies found in Europe, southeast Asia, Africa, New Guinea, Melanesia, western Polynesia, Australia and of course New Zealand. The Purple Swamphen is truly cosmopolitan. 

A takahē (Porphyrio hochstetteri)from here
In addition to the pūkeko, New Zealand is home to eight other species of rail. There is also evidence from middens that there were another eight species of endemic rails. But, as I have mentioned in previous posts on New Zealand birds (here and here), the arrival of humans resulted in their extinction. One species that was thought to be extinct, the takahē (Porphyrio mantelli hochstetteri), was 'miraculaously' rediscovered in 1948 G.B. Orbell. Orbell found a small population of about 250 indivuduals in a remote refuge in the Murchison, Kepler and Stuart Mountains in Fjordland on New Zealand's South Island. Following breeding and relocation efforts, takahē are now found on four predator-free offshore islands as well as at their rediscovery site.

Given their close relation to each other, the pūkeko and takahē are similar in appearance. Both species are bluish in colour with bright red legs and bills. However, the takahē is stockier and has a heavier bill. Furthermore, the takahē is flightless whereas the pūkeko is volant (i.e. it flies), albeit reluctantly, which is typical among rails. As with many New Zealand birds, and island birds in general, flightlessness is common and evolves in the absence of mammalian predators or competitors.

For some more pictures of pūkeko and other NZ native birds check out Chthoniid's Wildlife Photography and for some takahē videos check out the Deparment of Conservation. Also look out for a follow-up post on takahē that will be a little bit sciencier (that is a real word) demonstrating how modern genetic techniques have helped us learn so much more about species distributions. There is a hint about it in the species name for takahē.


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