When I think of the word swamphen, I picture some sort of ugly deformed chicken, reminiscent of a blob monster. I don’t know why; probably because swamps have such a bad reputation. Surprisingly, the purple swamphen is quite attractive, though its colours do resemble murky swamp water.

Purple swamphens can be found in a wide range of areas, including Europe, Africa, Asia and Australasia. They have even been introduced in Florida. Swamphens live in subtropical and tropical areas, in places where there is lots of water and vegetation, so basically swamps and other wetlands.

See how swampy the colours are?  Photo source: Wikipedia
See how swampy the colours are?
Photo source: Wikipedia

Male swamphens weigh about a kilogram, and females are usually around 850 grams. The colours of the purple swamphen are quite striking; they have iridescent indigo or purple feathers  and bright red bills. Colour varies from region to region, but birds are usually darker on their backs and lighter on their breasts. Their long legs are orange-red.

Mating in swamphens can occur in a number of ways, from monogamous pair bonding to communal mating. Males court females by grabbing reeds in their mouths and bowing to their ladies, making loud chuckling noises all the while. In communal groups, several females share a nest and are fertilized by multiple males. In these communal systems, all birds (both breeding and non-breeding animals of both sexes) help raise the chicks. A dominance hierarchy exists, with the dominant female achieving more matings than other birds. Apparently birds in communal systems are very forward thinking, for multiple different kinds of mating can occur: heterosexual, homosexual and multiple participants. Sounds like those birds have a pretty good time.

A parent feeding a chick. That is one ugly baby bird.  Image source: Wikipedia
A parent feeding a chick. That is one ugly baby bird.
Image source: Wikipedia

Swamphens have defined territories, which all birds in a group help to defend. Though they are capable of flying, they aren’t very good at it. They have a lot of difficulty during take-off, and landings are even worse. They basically crash into the ground, often picking a nice comfy shrub to fall into so it hurts less. So these guys usually try to run or swim rather than fly.

Swamphens have an interesting response to predators. If a predator is spotted, the bird will flick its tail up, revealing a conspicuous white patch of feathers. This signal is not meant to alert other swamphens to the presence of the predator, but rather to tell the predator itself that it has been spotted. This serves to deter the approach of the predator, as alert swamphens are much more difficult to catch. Groups of swamphens will also mob certain predators, chasing them away from their nests and young.

Though swamps are not a place of great excitement for me (I’d much rather go to a desert or to a jungle), it seems wildlife there might actually be pretty fun to see. The swamphen definitely would be neat to see in the wild. Perhaps there are other swamp dwellers I have overlooked because of prejudices. There’s probably a lesson in here somewhere.

Cover image source: http://timescolumns.typepad.com/stothard/2011/01/porphyrio-porphyrio.html

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