|On the island of Mallorca, Spain|
The western swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) is a swamphen in the rail family Rallidae, one of the six species of purple swamphen. From the 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. It used to be considered the nominate subspecies of the purple swamphen. It is found on the Iberian Peninsula, in France, Sardinia and western North Africa to Tunisia.
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 is a good swimmer, especially for a bird without webbed feet.
Western swamphens are generally seasonal breeders, correlating with peak rainfall in many places, or summer in more temperate climes. The purple swamphen breeds in warm reed beds. The pattern of social behaviour tends to be monogamy.
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. Each bird can lay 3–6 speckled eggs, pale yellowish stone to reddish buff, blotched and spotted with reddish brown. The incubation period is 23–27 days, and is performed by both sexes. 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 western 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.
Status and conservation
The western swamphen 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.
- Taylor, P.B. (1996): Family Rallidae (Rails, Gallinules and Coots). In: del Hoyo, Josep; Elliott, Andrew & Sargatal, Jordi (eds.) : Handbook of Birds of the World Vol. 3 (Hoatzin to Auks): 197, Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. ISBN 84-87334-20-2
- Pacheco, Carlos; Peter K. McGregor (2004). "Conservation of the purple gallinule (Porphyrio porphyrio L.) in Portugal: causes of decline, recovery and expansion". Biological Conservation. 119 (1): 15–120. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2003.11.001.
- 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
- Taylor, Barry and Van Perlo, Ber Rails (a volume in the Helm Identification Guides series) ISBN 0-300-07758-0
- Media related to Porphyrio porphyrio at Wikimedia Commons