Purple swamphen

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This article is about the old-world bird. For its new-world equivalent, Porphyrio martinicus, see American purple gallinule. For New Zealand equivalent, see Pukeko.
Purple swamphen
Purple Moorhen (Porphyrio porphyrio) Photograph By Shantanu Kuveskar.jpg
P. porphyrio at Mangaon, Maharashtra, India
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Gruiformes
Family: Rallidae
Genus: Porphyrio
Species: P. porphyrio
Binomial name
Porphyrio porphyrio
(Linnaeus, 1758)
Subspecies groups

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[edit]

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.

Porphyrio porphyrio melanotus in Wollongong Botanic Garden

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.


Porphyrio porphyrio poliocephalus; in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India

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.[2][3] 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.[4]


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.


Egg, Collection Museum Wiesbaden, Germany
Purple swamphen (P. p. melanotus) nesting.
Feeding chicks
Parent with a chick in New South Wales, Australia
Parent and juveniles in New Zealand

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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[5]

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.[5]

Diet and feeding[edit]

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 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[edit]

Roman times[edit]

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[edit]

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.[7] It was added to the American Birding Association checklist in February 2013.[8] These Florida birds are mostly or entirely of the gray-headed race poliocephalus, native to the area around the Caspian Sea.

Status and conservation[edit]

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.[9] In Africa it varies from being common to being uncommon. The subspecies endemic to Palau has been considered endangered as well,[5] although a 2005 survey found that the subspecies, while potentially threatened, is at least now still common.[10]


  1. ^ BirdLife International (2012). "Porphyrio porphyrio". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  2. ^ Trewick, S.A. (1996). "Morphology and evolution of two takahe: flightless rails of New Zealand". Journal of Zoology 238 (2): 221–237. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7998.1996.tb05391.x. 
  3. ^ Trewick, S.A. (1997). "Flightlessness and Phylogeny amongst Endemic Rails (Aves: Rallidae) of the New Zealand Region". Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 352 (1352): 429–446. doi:10.1098/rstb.1997.0031. PMC 1691940. PMID 9163823. 
  4. ^ Steadman D, (2006). Extinction and Biogeography in Tropical Pacific Birds, University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-77142-7
  5. ^ a b c d 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
  6. ^ Ali, Salim; JC Daniel (1983). The book of Indian Birds, Twelfth Centenary edition. New Delhi: Bombay Natural History Society/Oxford University Press. 
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ Floyd, Ted (13 Feb 2013). "#977, Purple Swamphen!". American Birding Association. Retrieved 13 Feb 2013. 
  9. ^ 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. 
  10. ^ Vanderwerf, Eric; Wiles, Gary; Marshall, Ann; Melia Knetch (2006). "Observations of migrants and other birds in Palau, April–May 2005, including the first Micronesian record of a Richard’s Pipit". Micronesica 39 (1): 11–29. ISSN 0026-279X. 
  • 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
  • Moon, Geoff (1994) The Reed field guide to New Zealand birds, ISBN X
  • Taylor, Barry and Van Perlo, Ber Rails (a volume in the Helm Identification Guides series) ISBN 0-300-07758-0
  • Ian Sinclair, Phil Hockey and Warwick Tarboton, SASOL Birds of Southern Africa (Struik 2002) ISBN 1-86872-721-1
  • Mike Clary, "State aims to eradicate exotic purple swamphens in wetlands," South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Sept. 8 2007

External links[edit]