Colours of Wildlife: African Purple Swamphen

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African Purple Swamphen

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

African Purple Swamphen by Willem

Today I bring you a very colourful bird, an African Purple Swamphen, Porphyrio madagascariensis. It used to be lumped with the (Eurasian) Purple Swamphen and a few others in the species Porphyrio porphyrio, but numerous features distinguish it. It occurs over much of sub-Saharan Africa, and as you might guess, Madagascar. The genus name 'Porphyrio' means 'purple one'. In South Africa it is also known as a Purple Gallinule. In other parts of the world, swamphens are also called Reed Hens or Sultan Hens. Purple swamphens (either lumped with Porphyrio porphyrio or separated into a few different species) occur from Africa through southern Europe and Asia to Indonesia and into Australia and New Zealand. Over this range, swamphens vary much in coloration, but generally have at least some purple or blue plumage, and always the red feet, bill and frontal shield. They're about the size of a small to average chicken. In the Americas, they're replaced by a smaller relative, the American Purple Gallinule. They're not closely related to chickens! Despite their chicken-like appearance, they are members of the Rail Family, the Rallidae, and are fairly closely related to coots. They've long been respected and admired by humans: Egyptians depicted them on the walls of their tombs, and the Greeks and Romans kept them as ornamental birds.

Skulkers in the Reeds

Another thing you might guess from its name is that the swamphen lives in swamps. Well, any kind of wetland actually, so long as there are plenty of reeds! They live as residents in permanent wetlands, but are able to move around and make use of temporary wetlands such as might come into existence in otherwise-dry places during years of exceptional rainfall. Despite their bright plumage, swamphens tend to be hard to see. Even with me being a fervent birdwatcher, I've only seen them in the wild a handful of times, and then only fleetingly. The exception is a single bird that appeared tame that I saw grazing and foraging in the shrubs on the grounds of a local casino! I can only explain it by postulating that the bird was indeed hand-reared from a chick and then left to roam the grounds. It is possible since there was a 'wild world' section of the casino that kept birds, and also rehabilitated sick and injured birds as well as abandoned chicks. Whatever the case, it gave me an opportunity to admire the bird's beauty up close.

A wild swamphen, however, tends to stick to dense cover. It uses its very large feet to clamber about reedbeds and over floating vegetation. It doesn't swim much, and will trample and bend down reeds and rushes to form raised, dry walkways, platforms and bridges over short stretches of water. When it does swim, it uses its long toes to propel it through the water like a duck. In the early morning or evening, it sometimes ventures away from the water to graze on the shore. It mostly eats its vegetables: the leaves and stems of reeds and other plants growing along the swamp margins, as well as the floating leaves, flowers and fruit of waterlilies. It often uproots plants to feed on the soft corms, tubers and rootstocks. It manipulates its food with its dextrous feet, and uses its bill to cut up and mash the tough leaves and stems. The bill is also useful for digging, turning over stones, and pulling up plants. It sometimes clambers up into the reeds and other plants to reach their seeds and flowers.

But swamphens are not total vegans. They will pick up and swallow small insects, snails, leeches, crabs and other invertebrates that they come across. That strong bill helps them also to crack open eggs and to catch, kill and consume frogs, snakes, small mammals and the chicks of other wetland birds. They will sneak about the reeds, creeping up on a victim and then lunging and grasping it. They also eat carrion if they can find it.

Though hard to see, swamphens are easy to hear! They are very vocal and raucous, emitting a variety of screams, cackles, croaks, grunts, snores, clucks, whistles, trumpet-sounds, and more. If you're about a wetland and you hear them calling, patience might reward you, after a long period of quiet waiting and watching, with a brief glimpse of a bird as it flits from one reed patch to another. If you're very lucky, you might enjoy a lasting view of one as it climbs up to the top of reeds to bask in the sun.

In most of South Africa, swamphens breed in the summer, when water levels are high. They make a big mound from reed, sedge and/or grass stems and leaves, either floating and anchored to emergent vegetation, or rising out of shallow water, or sometimes on the shore well away from the water. At the top of the mound, there's a small hollow to contain the eggs. The nest is concealed by bending the surrounding leaves and stems of reeds and other plants over it, forming a canopy. A gentle access ramp or two is also built from which the couple can clamber onto the nest. The female lays two to six eggs, and she and her mate both incubate them. The chicks hatch in about 23-29 days. They're open-eyed, covered in down, and soon capable of activity, but usually remain in the nest for a few days while their parents care for them. Their down is blackish but with some thin, white plumes on their head, neck, back and wings. The chicks also have bright red skin on their foreheads, and purple eyelids. Their parents help feed them until they're 25-40 days old, but they also start feeding themselves at 10-14 days. They fledge at about two months. They can begin breeding at the age of one or two years.

African purple swamphens are very widely distributed, able to use many different kinds of wetland habitats, including man-made ones, and with their wariness, difficult for humans to persecute, although they're hunted for food in a few places. Consequently, they're at present in no danger of extinction.

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