For the Birds Radio Program: Common Gallinule (a.k.a. Common Moorhen)
This week on our final Warbler Walk to the Western Waterfront Trail, one of the people picked out a fairly distant Common Moorhen walking delicately at the edge of cattails on the far side of the marsh. Northern Minnesota is barely outside of this species’ range, so we were pretty thrilled, and even though it was too far away to get a decent photograph, I posted one on my blog.
My old field guides call the Common Moorhen the Common Gallinule, and my VERY old field guides call it the Florida Gallinule. It was also alternately named the Black Gallinule. Now the species has been “lumped” with what had been considered a different European species, the Moorhen, and because that one had been given an English name long before English-speaking people arrived in America, the American Ornithologists’ Union gave the moorhen moniker primacy. So American birders were suddenly befuddled to have to call a familiar bird of our marshes something so foreign, especially because we don’t call peat bogs here in America moors. And the name gallinule, derived originally from the Latin word for a small chicken, has a coolness about it that it really is a shame to lose.
The Common Moorhen is closely related to its showier relative, the Purple Gallinule. Even if the Purple Gallinule is more gaudily colorful, the Common Moorhen is a very attractive bird. It looks about halfway between a coot and a rail, shaped like a coot with that comical little triangle tail with a fluffy white underside, which it flicks up and down as rails do. Instead of the white frontal plate that distinguishes cute coots with their white snoots, the Common Moorhen has a brilliant red one, which led to the Hawaiian folklore that this is the bird who first brought fire to humans, getting its forehead scorched in the process. When a Moorhen is swimming, it’s quickly distinguished from a coot by both that red forehead and by a horizontal line of white feathers along its sides. When it’s walking about, you may be lucky enough to notice its extremely long and slender toes. Coots also have long toes, but they are heavily lobed to aid in swimming. Apparently walking within dense floating marsh vegetation was more important than swimming in the toe design of moorhens, whose long thin toes distribute their weight so that they can stand and walk on a bed of pond lilies and can make their way through the deepest muck without getting stuck.
When I started birding in 1975, moorhens were still rather common in Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota—I saw them virtually every day from spring through early fall at a marsh I birded in Madison. But as with so many other wetland species, moorhen numbers are now dwindling, and even within their range they can be difficult to find. I see them every time I visit my son in Orlando—there’s a pond at Epcot Center that always seems to be graced with them, which has allowed me to get some rather nice photos over the years. I’ve yet to see anyone else at Disney World pay the least bit of attention to them, but I consider it a red-letter day whenever I see one of these lovely birds with their comical calls and interesting if secretive habits.