Purple swamphens are native to the tropical and sub-tropical regions of Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australasia. They have been introduced to Florida. In Europe, purple swamphens live in the Atlantic and Mediterranean basins where there are suitable lagoons, rivers, and other wetlands. There are 13 recognized subspecies of purple swamphen.
Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Introduced ); palearctic (Native ); oriental (Native ); ethiopian (Native ); australian (Native ); oceanic islands (Native )
Purple swamphens are large members of the rail family (Rallidae). Males are larger than females, males average 1,050 g and females 850 g. They are chicken-sized birds with dark, shiny indigo or purple feathers and red bills and frontal shields. Although plumage color varies regionally, in general their backs and wings are dark green, brown or black with a green sheen and their breasts and heads are from pale blue to purple blue. Their tails are short, and they have bright white feathers on the undersides of their tails. Their legs are long, scaly, and orange-red.
Range mass: 850 to 1050 g.
Average length: 51 cm.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry
Sexual Dimorphism: male larger
Purple swamphens live in freshwater and brackish wetlands containing plenty of emergent vegetation. The vegetation often includes reedmace (Typha), sedges (Carex), and reeds (Phragmites). They prefer marshes and swamps with consistent water levels. They can also be found in pastures and disturbed areas. They spend most of their lives on the ground and are not interested in forests.
Habitat Regions: temperate ; tropical ; terrestrial ; freshwater
Aquatic Biomes: lakes and ponds; rivers and streams; coastal ; brackish water
Wetlands: marsh ; swamp
Other Habitat Features: agricultural ; riparian ; estuarine
Habitat and Ecology
Purple swamphens eat vegetable matter and small animal prey. They eat the bulbs of Scirpus plants and browse on the shoots of marsh grasses and reeds. Animal prey is usually arthropods and other invertebrates, such as snails, although they occasionally take vertebrate prey, including fish, birds, and lizards. When they eat birds, they generally eat eggs, nestlings, and juveniles. They have been recorded preying on passerines and waterfowl, including teal, swans, and ducks. They also swallow grit, like sand or other sediment, to help their gizzards grind up their food. They sometimes lift food to their mouths with their feet, rather than eating it on the ground.
Animal Foods: birds; amphibians; reptiles; fish; eggs; insects; terrestrial non-insect arthropods; mollusks
Plant Foods: leaves; roots and tubers
Primary Diet: omnivore
Purple swamphens are important predators of marsh invertebrates and impact marsh communities through their predation and browsing.
Purple swamphens are one of New Zealand’s most successful bird species because they have appropriate responses to terrestrial mammalian predators. New Zealand has no native terrestrial predators, so many native New Zealand birds are very vulnerable to predation by introduced mammalian predators. One of their responses to predators is to physically attack the predator. They also use wing flapping, calls, and flashing their white rump patches to alert conspecifics to the presence of a predator and disturb the predator itself.
Purple swamphens use a conspicuous rump patch to signal their awareness of a predator’s proximity. To call attention to the patch, they flick their tails up and down rapidly. Interestingly, it appears the signal is not meant to alarm other swamphens as much as it is meant to tell the predator it’s been spotted. If the prey communicates its awareness of the predator’s presence, the predator may be less likely to attempt a pursuit. Also, purple swamphens have been noted to signal their awareness less when they are closer to cover. This may be due to decreased vigilance or to the lower visibility of the signal when the swamphen is close to cover.
Sometimes purple swamphens form groups to mob stoats and rats. The shrieking calls they emit during these hunts are called “blue murder” by overhearing humans. When not attacking, they will flee.
- marsh harriers (Circus aeruginosus)
- Australasian harriers (Circus approximans)
- stoats (Mustela erminea)
- rats (Rattus species)
Life History and Behavior
Purple swamphens communicate visually and with vocalizations. Their calls are varied, including their shrieking warning and attack calls and their hummed courtship calls. They also use a flash of their white rumps to tell predators they’ve been spotted.
Communication Channels: visual ; acoustic
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
There is little information on lifespan in purple swamphens in the literature. In New Zealand the oldest recorded pukeho was 9 years old. The related American species, Porphyrio martinica, has been recorded living up to 22 years in the wild.
Purple swamphens use a variety of mating systems, ranging from monogamous mating to communal mating. In communal mating, two breeding females share one nest and are fertilized by several males. In addition to the parents, non-breeding helpers of both sexes help raise the young. These groups generally contain 6 to 9 birds and the helpers are usually close kin to the breeders. Dominance hierarchies in these groups exist and there is generally a dominant female that breeds the most. Some populations of purple swamphens are monogamous. The full range of mating systems can be found in other populations, including smaller social breeding arrangements consisting of 1 or 2 females, 1 or several males, and helpers at the nest or not.
Courtship in New Zealand populations begins in late July and continues until early December. Males use an elaborate courtship display where they hold reeds in their bill, bow, and emit a chuckling vocalization. Preening is a common behavior, and it is often invited by one bird preening and bowing while another approaches. Courtship feeding occurs more often in communal settings than in pairs. Copulation could be initiated by a bird giving a humming call or by the male chasing her. Copulation within communal settings involves every type of pairing possible, including heterosexual, homosexual, and multiple participants. Group mating activity appears to have a function in synchronizing all the birds’ sexual cycles, thus allowing clutches to be laid and hatched simultaneously. Birds nesting in exclusive pairs copulate less than those in communal settings.
Mating System: monogamous ; polyandrous ; polygynous ; polygynandrous (promiscuous) ; cooperative breeder
Males become sexually mature when they are three years old. They mate with the two oldest and most dominant females in their group. Two to seven breeding males are possible in one communal breeding group. Young from previous seasons may be present to help with rearing the young. Both sexes of parents, but not sexually immature helpers, incubate the eggs. If a helper is old enough to breed but didn’t, it may help incubate near the end of the incubation period. Because of this system, yearling birds encounter their first hatchlings while under the supervision of more experienced birds. Non-breeders two or three years old have already had at least one year experience with young, and the parents themselves have had three or more years experience raising young. It appears raising chicks is partly a learned behavior, since non-breeders observe and learn how to provision the young. They build nests out of grass and tussock and sometimes both breeding females lay in the same nest. Neither female attempts to damage the other female’s eggs. The eggs hatch within four days of each other and the hatchlings are ready to leave the nest after about two days. They are brooded for a week and parents and helpers feed them until they are about ten weeks old. Breeding groups often attempt a second brood in a season, but these broods are not often successful.
Males build several nests. The ones built early in the season appear to be practice nests, as they are poorly constructed and lack a well-shaped bowl. They use stems of Typha and Juncus and tussocks of Carex and Cyperus. Nests are protected by a canopy of plants and are accessible by a ramp. After hatching, males then construct new nests specifically for brooding. Nests made of Typha are preferred for this purpose. Brood nests are often abandoned in favor of ones built nearer feeding sites.
Females usually lay their eggs around dawn. Females sharing a nest typically lay their eggs on the same days. Clutches are laid between mid August and mid February. Most breeders lay one or two clutches per season, but if a clutch is lost, extra clutches will be laid to make up for it. Each female will lay 3 to 6 eggs per clutch, with up to 12 eggs in a communal nest. Dominant females lay at least one egg more than submissive females when in communal settings. Incubation begins when half the clutch is laid, so individual eggs will end up hatching between 23 and 29 days after being laid. Hatching occurs over a two to three day interval. Only adults incubate, and females incubate more than males. In communal settings, the dominant female incubates the most. Interestingly, in group settings females will incubate most often during the day and allow males to concentrate on defense. Males are better at defense and incubate at night, when they aren’t needed for protection. In pair settings, this division of labor is difficult to implement and nest defense is not as effective.
Breeding interval: Purple swamphens have one breeding season per year and produce 1 or 2 clutches at that time.
Breeding season: Breeding varies with region, coinciding with spring.
Range eggs per season: 3 to 6.
Range time to hatching: 23 to 29 days.
Average time to independence: 2 months.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 3 years.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; oviparous
Purple swamphens generally have help when raising young. Monogamous pairs are often assisted by the young they’ve raised from earlier broods. Promiscuous mating groups all help each other. Also, both of the above groups may receive aid from non-breeders of either sex and different ages. When young hatch they are nidifugous and precocial. During the hatching period, one parent will sit on the nest and the hatched chick(s) while others bring food to feed the sitter or the young. Within three days new hatchlings are led away from the nest and fed elsewhere, sometimes on floating platforms of aquatic vegetation. Hatchlings begin to eat on their own after two days, but are still fed by adults until they are two months old. Hatchlings learn to stay close to cover and whenever a predator is spotted adults rush to protect the young. In pair territories, the young become independent earlier because their parents re-nest and hand over care to helpers.
Parental Investment: precocial ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-independence (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female); post-independence association with parents
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Porphyrio porphyrio
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Porphyrio porphyrio
Public Records: 3
Specimens with Barcodes: 17
Species With Barcodes: 1
Purple swamphens are not considered threatened from a global viewpoint. However, in Europe populations have declined as a result of habitat loss. They are considered rare and protected species throughout most of Europe. In Portugal they are considered endangered and they have been extirpated from parts of their former range. Hunting of purple swamphens is illegal, although hunters sometimes mistake them for legal gamebirds, like common coots (Fulica atra) and moorhens (Gallinula chloropus). Because they don’t move far by flying, they don't readily colonize available habitat that is isolated. In some areas more suitable wetland habitats are being created as a result of human expansion. Rice fields built along the Guadalquivir river encourage growth of Typha and Phragmites. New reservoirs result in build up of silt layers and the formation of new marshes. Reintroductions are also being attempted. European populations seem to be recovering.
US Migratory Bird Act: no special status
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: no special status
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: no special status
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
Status in Egypt
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Purple swamphens eat crop and pasture plants, including potatoes, kumara, clover, and grass.
Negative Impacts: crop pest
Purple swamphens eat pest insects in crop areas. They also hunt and kill rats and stoats.
Because they are the closest relatives of endangered takahes (Porphyrio hochstetteri and Porphyrio mantelli), purple swamphens are valuable research animals for takahe conservation. One problem plaguing takahe is their low fertility rates. Gunn et al. (2008) performed experiments to find out what was the best method to retrieve sperm from purple swamphens. Perfecting artificial insemination in swamphens may make it easier to help takahe with their breeding needs. Purple swamphens may also be valuable as potential foster parents to takahe. Unlike purple swamphens, takahe do not possess good responses to terrestrial predators. This lack of response has caused serious declines in their populations since the introductions of mammalian predators. Bunin and Jamieson (1996) took one takahe chick and placed it with purple swamphens. This cross-fostered chicks grew up to display swamphen responses, including increased vigilance and tail flicking.
Positive Impacts: research and education; controls pest population
The purple swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) is a "swamp hen" in the rail family Rallidae. Also known locally as the pūkeko, African purple swamphen, purple moorhen, purple gallinule or purple coot. From its French name talève sultane, it is also known as the sultana bird. This chicken-sized bird, with its large feet, bright plumage and red bill and frontal shield is easily recognisable in its native range.
Taxonomy and physical description
There are 13 or more subspecies of the purple swamphen (depending on the authority) which differ mainly in plumage colour. The subspecies groups are: P. p. porphyrio in the Mediterranean, P. p. madagascariensis in Africa, P. p. poliocephalus in tropical Asia, P. p. melanotus in much of Australasia, P. p. indicus in Indonesia and P. p. pulverulentis in the Philippines. 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 nominate subspecies, P. p. porphyrio (Linnaeus, 1758), is found in Iberia, France, Sardinia and North Africa to Tunisia. P. p. madagascariensis (Latham, 1801) occurs in Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar, and resembles the nominate but with bronze green or green-blue back and scapulars. P. p. caspius (Hartert, 1917) from the Caspian Sea area, is like poliocephalus, but larger.
P. p. seistanicus (Zarudny & Harms, 1911) occurs from Iraq to Pakistan, as poliocephalus, but larger; smaller than caspius. P. p. poliocephalus (Latham, 1801) is found from India and Sri Lanka to south China and north Thailand, and has been introduced to Florida. It has cerulean blue scapulars, face throat and breast. P. p. indicus (Horsfield, 1821) occurs from Sumatra to Sulawesi and Bali, and has a large shield, black upperparts, and the side of the head is blackish. P. p. virdis (Begbie, 1834) occurs in South East Asia, and resembles indicus but the side of the head is cerulean blue. P. p. pulverulentus (Temminck, 1826) from the Philippines has olive-chestnut mantle and scapulars, and the whole plumage is tinged with ash-grey.
P. p. melanotus (Temminck, 1820) occurs in north and east Australia, New Zealand and the surrounding islands. It has a small shield, shorter toes, black upperparts, and a purple throat and breast. P. p. pelewensis (Hartlaub & Finsch, 1872) from Palau, resembles melanotus but has greener upperparts and is smaller. P. p. melanopterus (Bonaparte, 1856) is found from the Lesser Sundas and Moluccas to New Guinea. It is as melanotus but smaller, more variable and less blue in the upperparts. P. p. bellus (Gould, 1820) from West Australia is as melanotus but has a cerulean blue throat and breast. P. p. samoensis (Peale, 1848) occurs from New Guinea to New Caledonia and Samoa, and is as melanotus but smaller, with a brown tinge on the back.
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.
The species is highly dispersive. Purple swamphens are considered to be the ancestors of several island species including the extinct Lord Howe swamphen and two species of takahē in New Zealand. On islands where closely related species have become extinct or declined due to human interference, such as New Zealand or New Caledonia, this species has established itself relatively recently.
The species makes loud, quick, bleating and hooting calls, which are hardly bird-like in tone. 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.
Purple swamphens are generally seasonal breeders, but the season varies across their large range, correlating with peak rainfall in many places, or summer in more temperate climes. 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. In the western parts of the range the pattern of social behaviour tends to be monogamy, but cooperative breeding groups are more common in the eastern parts of the range. These groups may consist of multiple females and males sharing a nest or a male female pair with helpers drawn from previous clutches.
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 may 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 23–27 days, and is performed by both sexes as well as any helpers that might be present. The precocious chicks are feathered with downy black feathers and able to leave the nest soon after hatching, but will often remain in the nest for a few days. Young chicks are fed by their parents (and group members) for between 10–14 days, after which they begin to feed themselves.
Diet and feeding
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 have even been known to attack large eels, however there is no consensus amongst ornithologists if they actually eat eel. 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.
Relationship with humans
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. A purple swamphen is depicted at the bottom of the famous garden fresco from Pompeii.
The common name in New Zealand, used by Maori for the subspecies P. p. melanotus, is the Māori language name pūkeko. The New Zealand purple swamphen was held in high regard as a chiefly pet in New Zealand and in Samoa, where it is called "manuali'i" (literally, "chiefly bird"). Red was the prized color of Polynesian aristocracy and while birds with red plumage (such as the red-tailed tropicbird, some Hawaiian honeycreepers like the 'i'iwi' and maroon shining parrot) were highly prized, the swamphen was unique in deriving its prestige not from plumage but from its reddish face, beak, and legs. In old Samoa only chiefs could keep such birds as pets, and early European sailors noticed tethered and/or caged swamphens treated by Samoan chiefs as tamed pets. Some Samoans also considered the swamphen to be the incarnation of a mischievous, aggressive demon called Vave (Corey & Shirley Muse, "The Birds and Birdlore of Samoa," 1982). There is no tradition of swamphens being taken as sport game or poultry food, except perhaps in time of necessity.
Escapes and introductions
The purple swamphen is occasionally recorded as an escape from captivity in Britain and elsewhere.
The purple swamphen was introduced to North America in the late 1990s due to avicultural escapes in the Pembroke Pines, Florida area. State wildlife biologists attempted to eradicate the birds, but they have multiplied and can now be found in many areas of southern Florida. Ornithological authorities consider it likely that the swamphen will become an established part of Florida's avifauna. It was added to the American Birding Association checklist in February 2013. These Florida birds are mostly or entirely of the gray-headed race poliocephalus, native to the area around the Caspian Sea.
Status and conservation
The species is considered to be Least Concern globally by the IUCN. While the species as a whole is not threatened, some subspecies have declined. In New Zealand and Australia it has expanded due to the creation of new artificial lakes and ponds, but the nominate race in the Mediterranean has declined due to habitat loss, hunting and pesticide use, and requires strict protection. In Portugal the species declined greatly in the 19th and 20th centuries, but has increased more recently thanks to protection and some reintroduction schemes, although it remains rare and has a fragmented distribution. In Africa it varies from being common to being uncommon. The subspecies endemic to Palau has been considered endangered as well, although a 2005 survey found that the subspecies, while potentially threatened, is at least now still common.
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- Ali, Salim; JC Daniel (1983). The book of Indian Birds, Twelfth Centenary edition. New Delhi: Bombay Natural History Society/Oxford University Press.
- Pranty, Bill, Kim Schnitzius, Kevin Schnitzius, and Helen W. Lovell. 2000. Discovery, distribution, and origin of the purple swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) in Florida.' Florida Field Naturalist 28: 1–11.
- Floyd, Ted (13 Feb 2013). "#977, Purple Swamphen!". American Birding Association. Retrieved 13 Feb 2013.
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- Leo, Roger (2006). 'Shorebirds in Art: Looking at history through the purple swamphen'. Sanctuary: The Journal of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, Summer 2006, 45 (4):18-19
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- Taylor, Barry and Van Perlo, Ber Rails (a volume in the Helm Identification Guides series) ISBN 0-300-07758-0
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- Mike Clary, "State aims to eradicate exotic purple swamphens in wetlands," South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Sept. 8 2007