The Purple Swamphen Porphyrio porphyrio is also called the Pukeko in New Zealand and is a very easily identified gallinule. It is the largest of three similar birds — the coot, dusky moorhen and the swamphen — being easily the largest with distinctive long legs with very long unwebbed and unlobed toes. It is also the most colourful, with its rather heavy, bright red beak and shield, its shiny blue neck and breast and its brilliant white under-tail feathers.
The swamphen has by far the greatest character of the three gallinules and like them has a piercing metallic screech. It varies its calls and is highly sociable. Unlike the coot and moorhen, however, and no doubt because of its lanky legs and toes, it socialises mainly on land rather than water.
Swamphens have long toes as an adaptation to living in dense beds of rushes and cumbungi. Their long toes help them to clamber among these otherwise impenetrable thickets. They also use their toes skilfully to bend the stalks and leaves into small stoops or platforms that can be used for nesting or as pivot points around which they can drag juicy leaves and shoots to eat. When doing this they usually stand on one leg while holding the food they are eating in the other. Swamphens mainly eat plants and are often seen grazing in flocks like sheep on lush lawns not far from water, though they will also occasionally raid crops. They are omnivorous rather than vegetarian however, and will also occasionally eat frogs, ducklings and the eggs of any bird they can reach, including those of domestic hens if they can ever get them. They will also feed on carrion, such as rotting fish, dead birds or road kill, where it is available.
Swamphens are fascinating to watch as they interact with others of their own species. They walk along flicking their conspicuous white triangular tail flags: the more frequent the flicking the more agitated they are. Swamphens will feed amicably in mixed species groups, as ducks, swans, coots and moorhens also come out to feed on grassy banks. They will form loose flocks of up to about 10 individuals and maintain a strict hierarchy. They often display a variety of comical behaviours as they establish pecking orders or protect feeding territories, and can sometimes be seen jumping into the air to do battle with each other using their long feet. Warfare between neighbouring bands is about as common as human warfare, though usually with less serious casualties. When running they are gawky and look rather like skinny purple chooks going through a perpetually awkward teenage stage. When flying, which they only do under duress, their long legs dangle behind.
Males and females look alike. They are also highly protective of their young. Baby swamphens are sooty black and fluffy and keep close to their parents as they graze in open country. When newly hatched they have red patches of down on their heads, but they soon lose this to become uniformly black. They have all sorts of mating relationships, including polygamy (one male: many females), polyandry (one female: many males) and polygynandry (a group of males will have exclusive sexual relationships with a group of females, though the sexes don’t have to be equal in number). The group will vigorously defend young and seem to be capable of defending themselves against most predators (except eagles and humans).
This species is found throughout Australia except for the southern deserts. It is also found in New Zealand, New Guinea, some Pacific Islands, Europe, Asia and northern Africa. It is a common bird that can at times become abundant.
In the Goulburn Wetlands it is presently rare, mainly due to weed management and the removal of extensive stands of long grass. As these are replaced and as more beds of reeds, cumbungi and rushes are established they are likely to become a common breeding resident once more, as they are in many of Goulburn’s riversides.