The purple gallinule (porphyrio martinica) is considered one of North America’s most beautiful birds.
Its name doesn’t begin to describe the tropical flair of its plumage. Notes of aquamarine, indigo, violet and iridescent green serve as plausible camouflage in temperate, marshy areas ringing the Gulf of Mexico, where it lives, but stand out everywhere else.
Purple gallinules are also famous vagrants, capable of heroic if doomed feats of flying, with sightings reported as far afield as Iceland and South Africa.
Gary Quisess didn’t know any of this, and couldn’t have guessed, when he saw one of the birds looking stunned and sickly in the band office of Neskantaga First Nation last month.
“I was very curious,” he says.
It was the beginning of a days-long effort to rescue the lost bird that would draw out the selflessness of two northern communities and evoke a sense of wonder among the dozens of people who crossed its path.
When Mr. Quisess encountered the gallinule, it was almost unimaginably far from home. Neskantaga sits deep in the Ontario bush, surrounded by black spruce and frozen lakes, more than 400 kilometres north of Thunder Bay – a world away from the tropical conditions the bird prefers.
When a visiting mechanic found the animal shivering in the subzero cold, it didn’t fly away – it likely couldn’t – and soon a group of people in the band office were trying to figure out what strange creature they had on their hands.
Elders had never seen such a thing. This was a juvenile, whose tan body and olive-green wings were more muted than those of its parents. But virtually everyone in the community came to look at the bird, with its subtle, unfamiliar hues.
“It was pretty: when you put it by the light, multicoloured,” Mr. Quisess said.
The next day, someone on Facebook pegged a photo of the pale, anxious bird as a purple gallinule, thousands of kilometres from its natural habitat.
The journey’s toll on the bird’s body was clear. It refused food and was weirdly impassive, as though in a trance. When it was weighed a day later, it came in at just more than 100 grams, less than half the healthy total.
Mr. Quisess found himself asking the animal: “What are you doing here?”
It may have been asking itself the same question. Researchers say purple gallinules are among the bird world’s most frequent long-distance vagrants, but such flights are not always deliberate. Juveniles of the species disperse to move away from competitors, but can be blown off course by cyclonic winds, said Frank La Sorte, an ornithologist at Cornell University in New York who recently co-wrote a paper on the subject.
“In most cases, they search until they either find something or die,” he said.
The First Nation and a growing group of bird lovers were determined to help the gallinule. A member of a birding page on Facebook alerted Jenn Salo, who runs Thunderbird Wildlife Rescue, a private animal rehab effort, out of her Thunder Bay home. She helped arrange to have the bird flown to the city for treatment.
North Star Air, a regional freight and passenger carrier, flew up a cage and transported the gallinule free of charge.
In its kennel on the noisy Dash 8 aircraft, the bird stood eerily still. Its purple, blue, and green feathers suggested an exuberance it clearly did not feel.
Jemma Chunick, safety manager for North Star, tried to feed the gallinule berries and draw it out with whistling. It hardly responded.
“It was really sad,” she said. “I was just thinking, ‘Oh my God, he has so far to go.’”
In Thunder Bay, Ms. Salo retrieved the bird from the airport and brought it home, where she placed it in a basket lined with blankets arranged under a heat lamp. She got up every hour in the night trying to feed it electrolytes through an eyedropper.
The bird-lover recognized the gallinule as "a little jewel,” but said it was weak and stressed when it came into her care. “It didn’t even have the strength to hold its wings against its body properly.”
The next day, Ms. Salo took the bird to a local vet, who injected it with more fluids. But there were signs the gallinule’s health was failing, including a tendency to breathe from its belly, which can indicate pneumonia.
The bird died on a Saturday, just a few days after being discovered.
“We tried. It was too little, too late,” Ms. Salo said. “It was heartbreaking to be the one to watch.”
Still, amid her sadness, a silver lining – or maybe purple lining, in this case – did not take long to emerge. Ms. Salo soon got an e-mail from the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, asking about acquiring the gallinule’s body for its collection for study, and so many more can appreciate its beauty and the strangeness of its voyage. She and Mr. Quisess agreed.
Even during the bird’s brief sojourn in Canada, its frail beauty and unlikely arrival moved scores of people who might never have known about one of the continent’s most spectacular creatures.
“Look how much that bird’s life touched in four or five days,” Ms. Salo said.
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