Everglades National Park

Everglades National Park

Non-native swamphens infiltrating Florida's ecosystem

May 18, 2010, 7:52 am

Lost in the recent furor over the fearsome exotic Burmese python is another invasive species that has spread quietly over the past 14 years from the man-made marshes of Broward County to Lake Okeechobee and beyond. Neither ugly nor dangerous to humans, it nevertheless poses a significant threat to South Florida's fragile wetlands ecosystem.

But there is good news: This particular invader is edible -- and tastes just like chicken.

Meet the purple swamphen, porphyrio porphyrio, an eye-catching violet-hued bird with a red bill and cream-colored feet that is easily confused with the purple gallinule, a pint-size native bird found throughout South Florida's wetlands.

Native to Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific islands, the chicken-sized swamphens got here the same way just about every other exotic species did -- by people bringing them here and setting them free. And like most exotics, they are quite capable of out-competing native birds for food and shelter.

``They're really hardy, really adaptable, and eat whatever they want,'' said Ellen Donlan, a scientist with the South Florida Water Management District. ``Their native range is so large, there's no reason they couldn't take over Florida.''

The bird is attracting some attention from state wildlife managers as they consider including the critter in South Florida's waterfowl hunting season in the fall and winter.

Twice as large as the gallinule, the swamphens are suspected of muscling those and other native swamp-dwellers such as the moorhen out of their accustomed homes and food supplies. This behavior is not in keeping with the multibillion dollar state/federal effort to restore the natural ecosystem of the Everglades.

``They are a big bird so they can easily harass a small bird,'' Donlan said. ``The district is very involved with Everglades restoration and any invasive species could potentially hamper that.''

First spotted poking around in the man-made marshes of Pembroke Pines' SilverLakes development in 1996 by homeowners Kim and Kevin Schnitzius, the birds were traced to two unnamed residents of nearby Rolling Oaks who allowed a handful of captive birds to roam freely.

Read more at miamiherald.com.