The Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio), also known as the African Purple Swamphen, Purple Moorhen, Purple Gallinule or Purple Coot, is a large bird in the family Rallidae (rails). From its name in French, talève sultane, it is also known as the Sultana Bird. It should not be confused with the American Purple Gallinule, Porphyrio martinica. The common name in New Zealand, used for the subspecies P. p. melanotus, is P?keko, which is the M?ori name.
Taxonomy and physical description
There are six or more subspecies of the Purple Swamphen (depending on the authority) which differ mainly in the plumage colours. The races are:
- P. p. porphyrio in Europe
- P. p. madagascariensis in Africa
- P. p. poliocephalus in tropical Asia
- P. p. melanotus in much of Australasia
- P. p. indicus in Indonesia
- P. p. pulverulentis in the Philippines.
P. p. melanotus, Gatton, Queensland
European birds are overall purple-blue, African and south Asian birds have a green back, and Australasian and Indonesian birds have black backs and heads. The Philippines subspecies is pale blue with a brown back. This chicken-sized bird, with its huge feet, bright plumage and red bill and frontal shield is unmistakable in its native range. Some authorities separate various subspecies as full species, for example P. p. madagascariensis is split by Sinclair et al as African Purple Swamphen, P. madagascariensis.
Purple Swamphens are considered to be the ancestors of several island species including the extinct Lord Howe Swamphen and two species of Takah? in New Zealand. The Purple Swamphen itself, deriving from a later self-introduction, is a native of New Zealand, where it is called the P?keko. Its range is thought to have expanded there after the arrival of humans as the numbers of Takah? declined to near-extinction levels.
Purple swamphen (P. p. melanotus) nesting.
The Purple Swamphen breeds in warm reed beds. The male has an elaborate courtship display, holding water weeds in his bill and bowing to the female with loud chuckles.
Pairs nest in a large pad of interwoven reed flags, etc., on a mass of floating debris or amongst matted reeds slightly above water level in swamps, clumps of rushes in paddocks or long unkempt grass. Multiple females lay in the one nest and share the incubation duties. Each bird can lay 3"?6 speckled eggs, pale yellowish stone to reddish buff, blotched and spotted with reddish brown. A communal nest may contain up to 12 eggs. The incubation period is 24 days.
Ecology and behavior
feeding in community near Hodal, Faridabad, Haryana, India.
The Purple Swamphen prefers wet areas with high rainfall, swamps, lake edges and damp pastures. The birds often live in pairs and larger communities. It clambers through the reeds, eating the tender shoots and vegetable-like matter. They have been known to eat eggs, ducklings, small fish and invertebrates such as snails. They will often use one foot to bring food to their mouth rather than eat it on the ground. Where they are not persecuted they can become tame and be readily seen in towns and cities.
The species has a very loud explosive call described as a "raucous high-pitched screech, with a subdued musical tuk-tuk". It is particularly noisy during the breeding season. Despite being clumsy in flight it can fly long distances, and it is a good swimmer, especially for a bird without webbed feet.
Evidence from Pliny the Elder and other sources shows that the Romans kept Purple Swamphens as decorative birds at large villas and expensive houses. They were regarded as noble birds and were among the few birds that Romans did not eat.
Escapes and introductions
The Purple Swamphen is occasionally recorded as an escape from captivity in Britain and elsewhere. An introduced population exists in Florida, though state wildlife biologists are trying to eradicate the birds. See Purple Swamphens in North America.