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Common, Widespread, Abundant… Purple Swamphens

By Keith Hutton on June 6, 2011 in Other

Often when you see water birds being fed at the edge of a lake in a park, there will be a few Purple Swamphens among them, deftly picking food items from the ground. Big, burly, ponderous birds, nervously flicking their tails which flash snowy white in the sun, conspicuous with massive red bills, black backs and purple-blue under parts. They have long, brownish-red gangly legs with thick knees and long slender toes, and are virtually unmistakeable.

You can expect to see them in Centennial Park stalking around the edges of Randwick and Lily Ponds, where there is adequate vegetation for cover, sometimes perched on the lower branches of paperbark trees overhanging the water, or feeding on the lawns.

Purple Swamphens are common to abundant in eastern, south eastern and south western Australia, erratic and casual in the arid interior, and locally common in the Kimberley and Top End of NT. They are also widespread in New Zealand and parts of Eurasia, Africa, Indonesia, Melanesia and Polynesia.

They usually occur in loose, territorial groups on margins of wetlands and in adjacent marshy areas where they habitually graze. Permanent territories are vigorously defended. When disturbed they run to cover, or fly heavily with dangling legs. They are generally shy in remote areas but become very tame in parks and on golf courses in many cities and towns. They are quite versatile regarding habitat requirements but fresh waters with ample cover of rushes, reeds, cumbungi or scrub are preferred. They may also be seen less commonly in brackish or salty areas.

Purple Swamphens are omnivorous but largely vegetarian. They eat succulent shoots and roots of reeds and rushes, supplemented with other plant material and some animal matter including snails, frogs, fish, reptiles, birds’ eggs, baby birds and carrion. They feed on the ground or in shallow water, in swamps, damp pastures and grasslands. Young shoots are nipped off at the base and held with one foot and chewed thoroughly before being swallowed. The birds also dig up rhizomes and plant roots, and glean insects and seeds.

Purple Swamphens are Australian native birds that have adapted well to European settlement. Numbers have been reduced locally as a consequence of removal of marginal wetland vegetation, recreational developments, drainage of wetlands, silting and livestock grazing. However, additional habitat has resulted from forest clearance and artificial water storages, with consequent increases in numbers, so that overall swamphens have benefitted from European settlement. This is despite limited legal shooting to prevent crop damage, occasional accidental pesticide poisoning, road kills and predation by exotic predators. There appear to have been continuing changes in regional distribution and abundance over the last 30 years, and national reporting of Purple Swamphens has increased, despite the adoption of new reporting methods that favour reduced likelihood of detection.