Glamourous Gallinules

This post is a follow on from my ‘Off the Rails with the Crakes’ post. Gallinules are also members of the wide Rail family, which includes Rails, Crakes, Coots, Flufftails and Moorhens. It is interesting that the Gallinules, Moorhen and Coots are similarly shaped and Crakes and Flufftails are similarly shaped but quite different to the other Rail family members and the Rails look like big Crakes with long beaks.

Gallinule sounds almost French but is in fact Latin for chicken, Gallina. The Gallinule is also rather unceremoniously called the Swamphen. Given its splendid colouring, I think the name is quite inappropriate, with such finery Gallinule sounds far better.

Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark.

Rabindranath Tagore

I am still in the process of adding to my bird categories. We are fortunate in southern Africa to have a vast selection of birds, so there are many more categories to come in between my trips. Being a photographer and birder, it is not enough just to see the bird and tick it off the list but I need to get stunning images of the bird too. The stunning images is the progressive part.  Initially many of the images are records only. My intention is to keep improving the quality and composition of the images, in a photographic sense.

I want to show to the two types of Gallinule found most often in southern Africa. I have managed to photograph both the the African Purple Gallinule and Allen’s Gallinule.

African Purple Gallinule

This is the larger of the two southern African Gallinules. This bird is the size of a chicken around 45cm in height.  It is brightly coloured with blue feathers on its side and breast and bluey-green feathers on its back and wings. Besides its distinctive and beautiful colouring it is distinguished by its red legs and red bill and front shield. The American Purple Gallinule, seldom seen in southern Africa, being a vagrant, looks like a smaller version of a cross between an African Purple Gallinule and a Common Moorhen with its  colouring similar to the African Purple Gallinule but has yellow legs and like a Moorhen has a yellow tip to its bill, and like a male Allen’s Gallinule has a blue front shield.

Purple Gallinule riding reeds at Marievale

Purple Gallinule riding reeds at Marievale

The Purple Gallinule is a good swimmer and its long legs and long toes are ideal for clambering among reeds and walking on floating vegetation such as  water lily pads and broken reeds while feeding on insects, though it is mainly a vegetarian. It has a short thin bill suited to biting through vegetation.

Purple Gallinule gathering nest material at Marievale

Purple Gallinule gathering nest material at Marievale

The African Purple Gallinule is a shy and secretive bird. It forages along the edge of reed beds. When disturbed it quickly retreats out of sight into the reeds. When alarmed it cocks its tail, much like a bantam chicken, showing the white underside. A Moorhen does the same thing. There must be for a reason for this signal- nature never does something for no reason.

This bird has short. wide rounded wings suited for almost vertical take-off and short flight with legs dangling, Although you normally only see one African Purple Gallinule at a time, they are cooperative breeders, monogamous and territorial. The chicks are precocial ( self support from hatching) and will dive under water when threatened much like a Jacana chick.

Allen’s Gallinule

The Allen’s Gallinule  ( previously called the Lesser Gallinule) is the smaller of the two at around 25-30cm in height. This smaller Gallinule has similarly coloured head, breast, wing and back feathers. It also has red legs and a thick red beak and red front shield.

Allen's Gallinule landing on a lily pad on the Chobe River

Allen’s Gallinule landing on a lily pad on the Chobe River

Unlike the African Purple Gallinule, Breeding males  have a blue front shield and females a green one. immature Allen’s Gallinules are a sandy brown colour.

Allen's Gallinule at Leeuwpan in Kruger Park

Allen’s Gallinule at Leeuwpan in Kruger Park

These are also secretive birds and I have only seen them at Leeuwpan in Kruger Park and along the Chobe River. They are often heard rather than seen, making a rapid clicking sound.

Allen's Gallinule on the Chobe River

Allen’s Gallinule on the Chobe River

This smaller Gallinule is quite capable of walking over lily pads, though a you can see in the next image it cannot rest on a lily pad for too long before it starts sinking. These birds are also good swimmers.

Allen's Gallinule in Jacana Alley in the Chobe River

Allen’s Gallinule in Jacana Alley in the Chobe River

Although the Gallinules are mainly vegetarian, they will eat insects and even frogs eggs when they can find them.

Allen's Gallinule eating frogs eggs at Leeuwpan in Kruger Park

Allen’s Gallinule eating frogs eggs at Leeuwpan in Kruger Park

At first glance you would not think you might find sparkling, colourful gems like Gallinules in apparently dull, marshy swamp-like wetlands. Next time you pass a wetland take a moment to have a closer look you will probably be amazed at what you see.

For man, as for a flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be vividly, perfectly alive.

D.H. Lawrence

Seek to understand nature, marvel at its interconnectedness and then let it be.

Have fun


Everyone likes birds. What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?

David Attenborough


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