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Story and photos by Susie Kearley
The stunning blue plumage and quirky characteristics of purple swamphens caught the attention of keepers at Cotswold Wildlife Park in England, who decided to add purple swamphens to their collection of exotic birds in 1984.
Native to countries of South Asia and the Middle East, the species likes to inhabit freshwater marshlands with plenty of vegetation. They first entered the United States as an exotic pet from Asia, but in the 1990s, some escaped from private collections in the Pembroke Pines, Florida, area and started to breed. Florida’s wildlife biologists tried to get rid of the wild populations but they weren’t successful. The birds have now been successfully breeding in the wild for around 30 years, and can be found in many parts of south Florida.
Cotswold Wildlife Park’s first purple swamphens came from more intentional means. The park sourced its first two birds from Ostrava Zoo in the Czech Republic. Keepers started breeding the birds and raised several generations of swamphens, occasionally supplying birds to other zoos for further breeding. Today, they have five birds of this charming breed, living with other birds (and even some primates) across the park.
I met bird-keeper, Chris Green, to talk about what it takes to look after these beautiful creatures.
Purple swamphens are a member of the rail family. “That’s the same family as coots and moorhens,” Green told me. “We’ve bred them in the past, but we’re not breeding them at the moment. We have enough of them for our needs, and they’re not a threatened species. They’re of least [conservation] concern.”
“There are six different types of swamphen, and the purple swamphen is the only type held in zoological collections in the U.K. They’re sometimes known as the Grey-Headed swamphen. Other species of swamphen are easy to tell apart because they have different colorings.”
At Cotswold Wildlife Park, the purple swamphens live in aviaries with spoonbills and scarlet ibis, and there are two in the walk-through lemur enclosure.
“Swamphens are not sexually dimorphic,” Green said. “This means it’s harder to sex them than some other birds because the males and females are the same color.” However, to the best of the park’s knowledge, they have two males and three females.
I asked about the birds’ behavioral characteristics. “They’re wallies!” Green exclaimed. (This means they’re idiots, if you’re not familiar with the British insult.) “We’ve got two females who were hand-reared, and they attack people. Their father did the same thing, but he died some time ago of old age. He lived to the ripe old age of 12, which is a good age for a swamphen. They usually live for 10 to 15 years.”
Green describes the birds as about the size of chickens but with massive toes. “They hold bits of carrot and lettuce in their toes,” he explained. “I feed them insectivorous pellets, carrots, lettuce, fruits, mealworms, locusts, and crickets. They’ll eat any insects they can catch in their enclosure. I also give them a little fish from time to time.”
Of Cotswold Wildlife Park’s five swamphens, two came from a zoo in the Czech Republic, and the other three were bred at the park. “We sent one that was born hereto Beale Park in Berkshire to pair with a female,” Green said. “They’re not common in U.K. zoos. Only Beale Park and Paradise Park in Cornwall have them, apart from us.”
They breed well, laying 2 to 4 eggs once a year, and are very attentive parents, according to Green. He assured me that they’re much better parents than coots, a common bird in the wild that has similar characteristics. “Coots are terrible parents; they sometimes kill their own babies,” he said.
Green feels the biggest challenge with raising swamphens in captivity is protecting them from the winter weather. “They can develop foot and toe problems due to the cold British weather, because they come from warmer climates,” he said. Ailments including bumblefoot and frostbite can be a problem, so park staff move the birds into a heated indoor enclosure for the winter.
“Bumblefoot is a pressure-related foot problem that affects many birds who spend most of their time on the ground. We had minus-10 degrees centigrade last winter. That’s not ideal for a bird native to hot parts of Asia,” he explained. “We’ve experienced bumblefoot with birds in the past and found it can be effectively treated by using different substrates. If we get a case, we’ll also use antibiotic creams to treat cracks in the toes. Birds of prey and parrots get it; any bird that spends a lot of time on the ground is at risk.” Green said that while it’s possible for a vet to surgically remove the inflicted part of the foot, it’s obviously preferable to prevent the disease from developing in the first place.
The park doesn’t experience many health problems with swamphens, but if staff identify curling toes, they can tape them up with “lolly sticks” to straighten the toes out and resolve the problem. The sticks are removed after the bird’s toes adjust.
Friends of Fur and Feather
We talked about how the birds get on with other animals at the zoo. They live in harmony with the lemurs and with many other birds.
“There are two purple swamphens in the walk-through Madagascar enclosure,” Green said. “They don’t peck anyone. They’re fine and are popular with visitors. So, we have two that are friendly and good with visitors and the two loonies who peck my Wellington boots.”
What are the highlights of working with the birds? “They’re spirited, really fun to keep, and challenging because they chase me around!
“We had to move them out of one enclosure because the common piping guan, a big black bird, kept attacking them. I think he was trying to mate with them. If he’d been allowed to carry on, he’d have killed them, so we moved the purple swamphens into a different enclosure.
“That all happened in another walkthrough enclosure, but now it’s closed to visitors due to uneven paths, bird flu, and some aggressive birds. We had frogmouths and kookaburras in there who could be stroppy!”
SUSIE KEARLEY is a freelance writer and journalist who lives in Great Britain along with two young guinea pigs and an aging husband. In Britain, she has been published in Your Chickens, Cage & Aviary Birds, Small Furry Pets, and Kitchen Garden magazines.
Originally published in the December23/January24 issue of Backyard Poultry magazine, and regularly vetted for accuracy.