Their Royal Purplenesses

No, I´m not talking about Prince, Squiggle, Symbol or whatever he calls himself. I´m talking about one of the most electric coloured waterfowl, the Purple Swamphen or Gallinule. There are 13 or so subspecies of this bird around the world but the European or Mediterranean version is found only in small parts of Spain, France, Sardinia and North Africa to Tunisia. As per its name it is generally found in swamps or reedbeds where it likes to climb high up on fallen reeds. They are much larger than other rallidae and about the size of a chicken. Generally they eat shoots and leaves but have also been known to eat eggs, ducklings, small fish and invertebrates. Their shimmering dark blue, purple plumage really does make them unmistakeable in the field. Combine this with the large red bill and frontal shield, strong red legs and you have a really extraordinary looking bird.

In Roman times they were seemingly one of the few birds that they did not eat due to the fact they considered them to be more decorative and due to their colours a bird of nobility for the nobility. The colour purple has always been associated with royalty and nobility since ancient times since the dye to create the colour was rare and expensive. It was the colour worn by emperors, Roman and otherwise, kings and nobility, those who could afford the dyes. In terms of Spanish history, purple was the third colour in the flag of the Second Spanish Republic and used as Spains flag from 1931 to 1939. The flag was a tricolour of red, yellow and murrey (purple in heraldic terms). The red and yellow represented the territories of Aragon and the purple represented Castille León. Some sources also state that the purple was the colour of the workers and common people. Whatever the real history, the flag was supposed to represent all regions of Spain and that all Spaniards were represented. Oh and it´s also the favourite colour of my sister…

Finally, why are they so scarce yet not endangered? In Europe the nominate race has declined due to habitat loss, hunting and pesticide use. The usual problems and we need more protection for birds such as these so that any further decline is halted. In Portugal there was a huge decline in the 19th and 20th centuries but the population has recently increased somewhat due to protection schemes and re-introduction programmes, albeit it still has a largely rare and fragmented population. Here in la Mancha they are present but also very localised and fragmented. Thus it is always a joy to be able to see these magnificient birds when they come out for a royal progress.

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