Standing at around 18 inches tall, the Gray-headed Swamphen is an invasive bird species now common to Florida. The Swamphens were likely introduced through pet escapees and incidents like Hurricane Andrew which released lots of non-native species into the Everglades.
As their name suggests, Gray-headed Swamphens are found in aquatic wetland habitats like marshes and wet prairies. They are native to southeastern Asia, but have adapted well to Florida’s warm climate.
The Swamphens are bad for several reasons, but the two most impactful reasons are that they devour wetland plants and they also out compete native bird species for the best nesting sites. Eating the native marsh grasses allows for invasive plant species to move into the marsh. The lack of vegetation also results in less cover for protection and fewer potential nesting locations overall for native species.
This purple, red and gray bird looks very similar to our native Purple Gallinule, but it grows to a much larger size. It’s so similar looking that there’s been hesitation to allow hunting of the non-native birds for fear that hunters could mistake them for the native Purple Gallinules.
Central and south Florida are the best places to find these birds. Look for them hidden amongst the vegetation while you’re walking on boardwalks that cross over marsh areas. One place that is great to view them is The Celery Fields in Sarasota County. This park is just off of I-75 in Sarasota and has old ponds known as “cells” that contain stormwater runoff. If you walk out on one of the boardwalks, you can easily view them with a pair of binoculars at times. They are somewhat secretive birds, so give it some time and listen for their loud calls and you can observe them too!