Bird of the Week: The Pukeko

One of the family of swamp hens

By Cushla McGeaghey

Pukeko are closely related to the takahe and more distantly to the weka.

They belong to a group of purple swamp-hens found throughout the western Pacific, Africa and southern Europe. Our pukeko, however, display more interesting and complex social behaviour than do similar species elsewhere.

Because nest sites are often limited, pukeko will form stable cooperative communities. The group may include two or more breeding males, one or two breeding females, who lay eggs in a communal nest, and the previous year’s young.

Males are the nest builders, but incubating the eggs is shared. Once the chicks start to hatch a second nest is built for them near to feeding areas, while incubation of remaining eggs continues in the original nest.

Pukeko are thriving in the wetland created alongside the Kapiti Expressway

Day-old chicks can walk and swim, but need brooding, feeding and protecting for several weeks, duties shared by all the older members of the group. They band together to defend their nests and chicks from rats, weasels, stoats and harrier hawks. Communication is very important in the pukeko way of life and so conflict is rare.

They have many different calls, ranging from loud calls warning of danger, to quiet calls attracting others to food, and soft chuckling calls to the chicks.

Pukeko are among the few species of our native birds that could adapt to and even benefit from human activities. Land cleared for pasture has enabled them to extend their feeding and breeding range.

However, they still prefer to nest in raupo swamps, near to or surrounded by water. Tall vegetation there provides cover from predators.