At first glance, it looks like a giant, mutant purple gallinule. Upon further review, as they like to say in the NFL, it’s clearly something else, given the red forehead shield, red legs, ground hugging habit — and overly large body. So what is it? The purple swamphen, of course.
If you haven’t heard of this bird, AKA Porphyrio porphyrio, you’re not alone. In the United States, it’s a rare bird, found wild only in Florida — Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Hendry counties, mostly. But it is not native to North America, let alone Florida.
As one theory goes, during the 1990s someone in Pembroke Pines kept the birds as pets and let them roam freely. From there, who knows? A second theory has the birds escaping from their Pembroke Pines owners in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. A third also involves Andrew: the Miami Zoo had purple swamphens, part of its “Wings of Asia” exhibit, eight of which managed to escape during the hurricane.
But it’s not even clear that all the birds are same type — there are 13 subspecies of swamphens, two of which apparently are roaming around Florida. There are swamphens with blue heads, swamphens with gray heads. The grays, P. porphyrio poliocephalus, are a subspecies native to a region that extends from Turkey and the Caspian Sea to Sumatra in Southeast Asia. The blues are a different subspecies altogether.