Hart Beat by Hart Rufe

First published January 19, 2013 ... Contact Hart at hartrufe@gmail.com

Purple Swamphen

The Purple Swamphen (pale-gray-headed, here) is now considered a "non-countable" foreign invader from the Mediterranean, but that designation may be destined to change.

The Color Purple

Purple Swamphen (blue-headed)

Purple Swamphen (blue-headed)

There are four species of North American birds with the descriptive color “Purple” in their name, and when they are listed alphabetically, as they are on some smart phone apps, they all appear one right after the other. They are Purple Finch, Purple Gallinule, Purple Martin, and Purple Sandpiper. They appear destined to be joined by a fifth: the Purple Swamphen.

The first four are native birds, but the Purple Swamphen is another foreign invader from the Mediterranean area. It has not yet been accepted as established in the U S by the American Ornithological Union (AOU) or the American Birding Association (ABA) (not American Bar Association as some of you might have thought, at least not in this blog), but it is now getting closer to acceptance, as the species is breeding quite successfully in many parts of southern Florida, and will probably be a “countable” bird within the next year or two.

The color purple appears to be in the eye of the beholder as it relates to these five species, for the Purple Finch seems more cranberry in color; and the Purple Martin is certainly a deep rich shade of very dark purple, if anything; the Purple Sandpiper must have been named for its dark color, but hardly what one would call a true purple; and the Purple Swamphen tends more toward blue, along with a small amount of purple. Only the lovely Purple Gallinule actually qualifies as truly purple to the eye of this writer.

The Purple Swamphen’s native range extends from the Mediterranean Sea across Africa, Asia and even to Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines. They arrived in south Florida when a number of them escaped from aviculturists in Pembroke Pines, southwest of Fort Lauderdale, in the 1990’s, and despite attempts by state wildlife biologists to eradicate them, they have succeeded in breeding and expanding their range.

While there are at least 13 subspecies of Purple Swamphen, distinguishable primarily by color variation ranging from pale gray to blue to a dark black version, the Florida birds apparently descend from the Caspian Sea race of pale-gray-headed birds, although at STA-5, where they have been particularly successful at becoming established, both the pale-gray-headed and the blue-headed European versions can be found.

The photos accompanying this article, one gray headed and one blue headed, were both taken on the same day at STA-5, south of Clewiston, Florida. Jewel and I found and photographed a blue-headed Purple Swamphen at the Goodwin WMA near Felsmere, which, according to Florida bird authorities, is apparently the northern most outpost that the bird has reached in Florida. But the first one we ever saw was in the early 1990’s near Dover, Delaware, a bird coming to a backyard bird feeder, whose origin never was discovered, and the bird was “not life-list countable” to the disappointment of many Delaware Valley area birders who made the trek to see it. The Florida Purple Swamphen will most likely change that in the very near future.

Our daughters attended a school whose primary school color was purple. It was always interesting at events, such as sport competitions and graduation, to see all the different interpretations of purple that school supporters wore to honor the school. As I recall, even the school book store had different colors of paraphernalia for sale in an apparent admission that they, themselves, were not sure which was the true color of purple. No wonder we mere birders have difficulty determining which bird is actually purple. (1/19/2013)

(Click photos for larger versions)

Purple Finch

Purple Finch

Purple Gallinule

Purple Gallinule

Purple Martin

Purple Martin

Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper

(Click photos for larger versions)