Moorhen prefer to make their nest in the dense vegetation along the banks of ponds, lakes and rivers and reveal their presence only when performing their guttural calls. In winter they are much easier to observe as they abandon their sheltered habitat to venture out onto meadows, parks and open waters. As they swim or move on muddy surfaces or lawns, they move in jerks, nervously shaking their tails and showing off the white feathers of the under-tail. With their long fingers they are able to move walking on floating leaves.
Everything you need to know about the moorhen:
The scientific name of this species comes from the green color of the terminal part of the legs (from chloros, green, and from pous, feet). The name “moorhen” is probably due to the similarity of this bird to a small hen, in fact, both for its physiognomy and for its attitudes. In fact, individuals of this species often perform a particular movement of the neck and head while swimming. Its distinctive features are black plumage and a bright red beak, as well as a typical red garter on its legs. In flight it is clumsy and, before hovering in the air, it takes a short run on the surface of the water. In case of emergency, the moorhen is also able to dive.
It’s a solitary species mostly. Some exceptions can be had during the winter, when several individuals can gather on the grass near the water in search of food. Difficult species to observe in flight: it mainly carries out short movements at low altitude above the surface of the water. Normally it can be observed while it searches for food on the water, without diving, and on the meadows next to the wetlands. Like other bird species, in the places it frequents in close contact with humans (for example in parks) it is quite confident and not very fearful. It makes a hoarse, harsh, croaking sound.
- Scientific name: Gallinula chloropus.
- Weight: 250 – 420 g.
- Length: 32 – 35 cm.
- Wingspan: 50 – 55 cm.
- Age: Up to about 18 years.
- Diet: Plants, seeds, insects, earthworms and slugs.
- Habitat: Lakes, waterways and wetlands in general.
- Threats: The species is affected by the elimination of vegetation and the burial of wetlands. Serious threats to the species are also represented by acute pollution phenomena, early rice harvesting, avian flu, botulism and predation. Among its predators there are also alien species and stray cats that increasingly have a negative impact on the conservation of this and other bird species.
The moorhen is a medium-sized aquatic bird, the body is almost completely dark except for the white streaks on the sides and under the brown tail. The head and upper parts are olive brown in color which during the winter are shiny. The beak is short and red with the exception of the terminal part which is yellow; connected to this there is an always red frontal plate slightly larger in the adult male than in the female. The top of the body is brown-olive. The latter is short, pointed, with a clear white streak and always stay raised if compared to the rest of the body. The legs are yellow-green with very long legs and toes. A peculiarity of this species is given by the presence of a red spot, called garter, above the joint of the tarsus.
The juveniles have slightly different appearance compared to the adult: the upper parts are clear while the lower parts are brown, the throat is whitish, the beak and front plate are smaller grey-green colored. It is generally a solitary bird but occasionally it gathers in small groups with the purpose looking for food. Its diet is mainly based on aquatic plants, seeds, berries and, to a lesser extent, mollusks, worms and insects. The moorhen swims gracefully by shaking its head slightly. When in a dangerous situation, it assumes an upright posture with an elongated neck and moves its tail up and down to show its white feathers.
The moorhen is typical of aquatic environments, not elusive like other members of the same family and therefore, easily observable, especially at sunset when it goes out to feed. In the optimal habitats moorhen can reach a very high density, both in the reproductive period and during the wintering, when it usually tends to meet in large groups. Originally typical of marshy areas, the moorhen is currently widespread also in crops characterized by the presence of streams, albeit of modest flow.
It is even possible to observe it in the small canals adjacent to the roads, provided they are accompanied by strips of vegetation. The moorhen is present in all European countries, including southern Scandinavia. In the south-western parts of the continental range it is sedentary or dispersive, while it is migratory (partially or completely) in the rest of the territory. A small number of individuals winter in the Nordic and Eastern countries, while most spend the cold season in the Mediterranean and Balkan areas.
The moorhen feeds on grazing mainly plant species: shoots, leaves and seeds of aquatic plants, and cereals, such as rice and wheat; however, it does not disdain foods of animal origin, such as tadpoles and snails.
The moorhen cooperate in defence of the brood, and the young of the first brood of the season take care of the defence of the territory and the care of the following brood. They nest in swamps, freshwater lakes and ponds with emerging vegetation. They usually make a dome-shaped nest using grass and plants, placing it on vegetation above water, land and sometimes even directly on the water, with a slide to go back in it and sometimes featuring even a cover for hiding.
Producing between 5 and 8 eggs, these will be incubated by the couple for about 20 days. There can be 2 or 3 broods a year, between April and July. The chick will grow feathers as early as 40 to 50 days. During this period, the parents take care of the first brood, but when it becomes relatively independent, a second litter is born and sometimes even a third.
The moorhen is not considered threatened and is not protected. It is even capable of withstanding high rates of pollution and does not avoid areas with a high degree of urbanization. However, since during the nesting period it is particularly dependent to humid habitats rich in marsh vegetation, the presence and consistency of the moorhen could be in some way influenced by the rarefaction of these environments, primarily due to reclamation interventions. For conservation it is therefore important to maintain large bands of vegetation along watercourses.
Federico Fiorillo is an Italian nature guide and content writer based in the magnificent Val de Bagnes, Switzerland. He’s an avid hiker and snowboarder and he travels to the great wilderness areas of the world to see the wildlife and birds he’s passionate about.
In 2008 and 2011 he joined two Brazilian wildlife field trips in Bahia and decided that observing birds in their habitat was going to be one of his driving passions. He completed a birdwatching course with EBN Italia in 2013, and then in 2014 and 2015 he travelled to South East Asia, Australia and the United States where he joined a photographic workshop at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah.
From 2016 to 2018 he lives in New Zealand, where he collaborates in environmental projects at the Otorohanga Kiwi House, which since 1971 protects kiwi and other New Zealand native birds, among the projects he worked hands on the most rewarding was the one aiming to release Brown Kiwis into the wild.
In 2017, he completes a backcountry survival course obtaining the skillsets needed to thrive in-stead of just survive in the face of adversity in the wilderness. In 2017 he also joins a NZ Bird Photography Tour in Ulva Island and at the Royal Albatross Center of the Otago Peninsula, home to the world’s only mainland Royal Albatross breeding colony.
After his travels across the South Pacific, following his experiences in 2018 he moves in the Swiss Alps where he’s now a nature guide leading tours in the alpine region between Switzerland, Italy and France. Leading nature walks and overnight hiking trips, teaching tourists and locals the secrets of the plants and animals living in this alpine region.
Inspired by an alternative lifestyle he believes in the importance of being in connection with the natural environment and feels the responsibility of interpreting the natural wealth of a site, educating and informing other of the different aspects of that particular area.