The western swamphen (''Porphyrio porphyrio'') is a swamphen in the
rail Rail or rails may refer to: Rail transport *Rail transport and related matters *Rail (rail transport) or railway lines, the running surface of a railway Film *''Rails'' (film), a 1929 Italian film by Mario Camerini *''Rail'' (1967 film), a film ...
family Rallidae, one of the six species of
purple swamphenThe purple swamphen has been split into the following species: * Western swamphen, ''Porphyrio porphyrio'', southwest Europe and northwest Africa * African swamphen, ''Porphyrio madagascariensis'', sub-Saharan continental Africa and Madagascar * Gre ...

purple swamphen
. From the French name ''talève sultane'', it is also known as the sultana bird. This
chicken The chicken (''Gallus gallus domesticus''), a subspecies of the red junglefowl, is a type of domesticated fowl, originally from Asia. Rooster or cock is a term for an adult male bird. A younger male may be called a cockerel; a male that has ...
-sized bird, with its large feet, bright plumage and red bill and
frontal shield A frontal shield, also known as a facial shield or frontal plate, is a feature of the anatomy of several bird species. Located just above the upper mandible, and protruding along the forehead, it is composed of two main parts: a hard, proteinaceou ...
is easily recognisable in its native range. It used to be considered the
nominate subspecies In biological classification, the term subspecies refers to one of two or more populations of a species living in different subdivisions of the species' range and varying from one another by morphological characteristics. A single subspecies c ...
of the purple swamphen, but is now recognised as a separate species. The western swamphen is found in wetlands in Spain (where the largest population lives), Portugal, southeastern France, Italy (
Sardinia Sardinia ( ; it, Sardegna ; sc, Sardigna and , also ''Saldigna'', ''Sardíngia'', ''Sardinna'', ''Sardinza''; sdc, Sardhigna; sdn, Saldigna; ca, label=Algherese, Sardenya; lij, label=Tabarchino, Sardegna) is the second-largest island in the Me ...
Sicily (masculine) it, Siciliana (feminine) , population_note = , population_blank1_title = , population_blank1 = , demographics_type1 = Ethnicity , demographics1_footnotes = , demograph ...
) and northwestern Africa (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia).


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 is a good swimmer, especially for a bird without webbed feet.


Western swamphens are generally seasonal breeders, correlating with peak rainfall in many places, or summer in more temperate climes. The purple swamphen breeds in warm reed beds. The pattern of social behaviour tends to be
monogamy Monogamy ( ) is a form of dyadic relationship in which an individual has only one partner during their lifetime—alternately, only one partner at any one time (serial monogamy)—as compared to non-monogamy (e.g., polygamy or polyamory). The t ...
.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 The ''Handbook of the Birds of the World'' (HBW) is a multi-volume series produced by the Spanish publishing house Lynx Edicions in partnership with BirdLife International. It is the first handbook to cover every known living species of bird. The ...
Vol. 3 (Hoatzin to Auks)'': 197, Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
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. Each bird can lay 3–6 speckled Egg (biology), eggs, pale yellowish stone to reddish buff, blotched and spotted with reddish brown. The incubation period is 23–27 days, and is performed by both sexes. The Precocial, 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.

Diet and feeding

The western 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

Ancient times

Swamphens were often kept in captivity in ancient Greece and ancient Rome. Their behavior was described in some detail by Aristotle in ''History of Animals'' (4th century BC), and they were also mentioned by Aristophanes (5th century BC), Pliny the Elder (1st century BC), Claudius Aelianus, Aelian and Athenaeus (2nd to 3rd century AD). Sources indicate that these birds typically were western swamphens (originating from the Balearic Islands, among others) or grey-headed swamphens (originating from Turkey), and the two were already distinguished by Pliny the Elder who considered the former superior. They typically were not kept for food, but instead were decorative birds in villas and temples. If raised in captivity swamphens tend to become quite tame. There are many depictions of the species on Roman mosaics and frescos, typically in a natural or domestic environment, including the famous garden fresco from Pompeii. In early Christianity it was also frequently depicted, but here symbolising the richness of life and often perched in the Tree of life (biblical), tree of life.

Status and conservation

Today the western swamphen is locally common, with the largest population in Spain. It was formerly listed as "Rare" by the European Union, but has been delisted to "Localised". The species declined drastically in the first half of the 20th century due to habitat loss and hunting. It was relatively widespread until 1900, but by the 1960s it was seriously Threatened species, threatened and its range in the Iberian Peninsula was limited to a few locations in the Guadalquivir basin. As a result of reintroduction schemes and protection of both the species and its habitat, the western swamphen has since recovered. By the 1990s it was locally common, and by 2000 its range in the Iberian Peninsula was similar to its range in 1900. The center is in Spain where the population increased from 600–900 breeding pairs in 1992 to 3500–4500 breeding pairs in 1999. From Spain it has continued its expansion into southeastern France where small numbers now breed. It remains rare and local in Portugal where there were 49–67 breeding pairs in 2002, but this population is also recovering. It was Local extinction, extirpated from
Sicily (masculine) it, Siciliana (feminine) , population_note = , population_blank1_title = , population_blank1 = , demographics_type1 = Ethnicity , demographics1_footnotes = , demograph ...
in 1957, effectively restricting its Italian range to
Sardinia Sardinia ( ; it, Sardegna ; sc, Sardigna and , also ''Saldigna'', ''Sardíngia'', ''Sardinna'', ''Sardinza''; sdc, Sardhigna; sdn, Saldigna; ca, label=Algherese, Sardenya; lij, label=Tabarchino, Sardegna) is the second-largest island in the Me ...
where the population was 450–600 breeding pairs in 1999. Beginning in 2000, it was reintroduced to Sicily. A small "purple swamphen" population in central Italy is the result of grey-headed swamphens that escaped from a zoo. Little is known about the status of the western swamphen in Africa, but northeastern Algeria is considered one of its strongholds in this region. When protected, western swamphens are able to thrive in human-managed habitats, and in some places they live in paddy fields, resulting in conflicts with farmers as they can be destructive to the rice.


* 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 * Taylor, Barry and Van Perlo, Ber ''Rails'' (a volume in the Helm Identification Guides series)

External links

* {{DEFAULTSORT:swamphen, western Porphyrio, western swamphen Birds of Africa Birds of Eurasia Birds described in 1758, western swamphen Taxa named by Carl Linnaeus, western swamphen