Western swamphens are also sometimes known as purple western swamphens or purple gallinules (not to be confused with the American purple gallinule, native to North America). A relative of the moorhen, the species was first confirmed in the UK in 2016, and added to the British Birds list the following year. Sightings remain extremely rare and unusual.
Western Swamphens are large, chicken-like wetland birds, with a number of distinguishing features that set them apart from other similar species. They have a large triangular red bill, which extends into a solid red forehead shield, and their legs are also bright red.
Their plumage is dark, with a glossy blueish-purple sheen on the head and throat, while their body, belly, and wings are blackish-green. The upper tail is black, and the undertail is white.
Females are similar to males, but smaller overall, and have a smaller facial shield.
Juvenile western swamphens are similar to adult birds but their plumage is paler and less glossy, and their heads have more of a greyish wash than the striking blue-violet seen in mature birds.
Western Swamphen standing in swamplands
Around the size of a large chicken, western swamphens are much larger and heavier than the similar-looking moorhen. Male western swamphens are larger and heavier than females.
Western Swamphen foraging in natural habitat
Western swamphens are a noisy species with a wide variety of sounds and calls heard in different situations. A cackling series of shrieks can be heard in flight, while on water, males call using long, haunting notes and females respond with shriller, softer calls.
Alarm calls resemble a loud trumpeting sound, and a quieter, grating cry is used to signal an approaching threat.
Plant matter forms the main element of a western swamphen’s diet, with shoots, roots and leaves of aquatic plants widely eaten, as well as rice, grass seeds, sedge and flowers. Molluscs, crustaceans, insects and larvae, small fish, rodents, young birds, and their eggs and carrion may also be eaten if the opportunity arises.
Soft plant parts are fed to young western swamphen chicks by their parents. Sap from inside plant stems is a common choice for young chicks in their early days, with parent birds snapping the stem in half and using their toes to feed the sap into their chicks’ bills.
Western Swamphen feeding on a fish
Regions with high rainfall are preferred by western swamphens, which live in wetlands lined with dense vegetation during breeding and non-breeding seasons. They also may be spotted on lakes and may spread into farmers’ fields and open land alongside slow-flowing rivers, where they may forage for rice and crops.
Western swamphens are found in a small region of south-western Europe and north-west Africa, including Spain, Portugal, south-eastern France, the Mediterranean islands of Sicily and Sardinia, and in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.
The global population of western swamphens is estimated at 780,000 to 2,910,000 individuals, of which between 19,100 and 102,000 individuals live in Europe. Spain has the largest concentration and they are also common and widespread in north-eastern Algeria.
In their home distribution range, western swamphens are not at all unusual, particularly in Spain where the majority of the population is concentrated. Outside of this range, they are highly unusual and sightings are incredibly rare, even more so due to their preference to migrate on foot rather than by flying.
The first verified sighting of a western swamphen was recorded at Minsmere in Suffolk in 2016, and the individual bird was then moved to Lincolnshire where it remained until early the following year. Reported sightings are highly unusual.
Western Swamphen wading in wetlands
No verified data exists for the average or longest lifespan of a western swamphen. First-time breeding is thought to occur at between one and two years of age.
As a large wetland species with nest sites that are often inaccessible to land predators, western swamphens do not have many natural predators. Eagle owls and buzzards are among the biggest threats.
Western swamphens have full legal protection in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy and France. They are listed as a Red List species in Italy, Portugal and Spain.
While no official conservation status exists for western swamphens, they are under threat from both loss and degradation of their wetland habitats. Widespread drainage of wetlands has led to a contraction of breeding grounds and the introduction of exotic invasive species to a number of key wetland sites has also had a negative impact on their future survival.
Western Swamphen with its chick
Western swamphens build their nests on platforms of semi-submerged aquatic vegetation, with a large cup constructed using leaves and stems of wetland plants. Surrounding plants are used to form a canopy, concealing the nest site from open view. Males and females both participate in building the nest and may also be helped by non-breeding birds.
In Mediterranean regions, the breeding season for western swamphens is between March and June, with one or occasionally two broods raised each year. Males and females take turns to incubate, for a period of between 23 and 27 days. Young leave the nest a short while after hatching and are cared for on the water by both parents until they reach independence at between 6 and 8 weeks.
Western swamphens lay large, pale glossy eggs. Between 3 and 6 eggs are laid, from pale stone to light yellow in colour, and marked with purple-brown scrawls.
Western swamphens tend to live in extended family groups, and while they may have a mate for the duration of a breeding season, other closely related birds will also assist with caring for young. Communal nests also occasionally occur, with up to 12 eggs laid by different females, and incubation shared.
Nest of a Western Swamphen with four eggs
Western swamphens are a relatively tame species and tolerant of being around other western swamphens and humans. Communal breeding is common, and they live in extended family groups.
Western Swamphen in-flight
Western swamphens are a generally sedentary species, and any migrations are usually on foot and take them only a short distance from their nesting sites each year. However, some migration further afield must occur occasionally to explain their presence as vagrant visitors in regions way beyond their natural distribution range.
The first verified record of a western purple swamphen was made at Minsmere in Suffolk in 2016, after which the species was added to the list of British birds. Previous sightings were never fully verified or confirmed.
Purple Gallinule, Purple Swamphen, Sultana Bird
Family:Rails, crakes and coots
38cm to 50cm
90cm to 100cm
520g to 1000g
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