The Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) is a bird in the rail family with an almost worldwide distribution outside Australasia as well as deserts, many tropical rainforests, and the polar regions. It is equally often called the common Waterhen, a name which is more apt because the bird lives around ponds, lakes, canals, marshes, etc., but is not common in moorland. Other names include the water rail, the moor coot and the common gallinule. This proliferation of names is probably due to the commonness of the bird in many different places.
This is a common breeding bird in marsh environments and well-vegetated lakes. It is often secretive, but can become tame in some areas. Populations in areas where the waters freeze, such as southern Canada, the northern USA and eastern Europe, will migrate to more temperate climes.
It is a distinctive species, with dark plumage apart from the white undertail, yellow legs and a red facial shield. The young are browner and lack the red shield. It has a wide range of gargling calls and will emit loud hisses when threatened.
This species will consume a wide variety of vegetable material and small aquatic creatures. They forage while swimming, sometimes upending to feed, or walking through the marsh.
The nest is a roofed basket built on the ground in dense vegetation. Laying starts in spring, between mid-March and mid-May in N hemisphere temperate regions. 8-12 eggs are usually laid per female early in the season; a second brood in summer usually has only 5-8 or even less eggs; nests may be shared by females. Incubation lasts about three weeks. Both parents incubate and feed the young. These fledge after 40-50 days, become independent usually a few weeks thereafter, and may raise their first brood the next spring.(Snow et al. 1998)
Despite loss of habitat in parts of its range, the Common Moorhen remains plentiful and widespread.
About one dozen subspecies are today considered valid; several more have been described which are now considered junior synonyms. Most are not very readily recognizable as differences are rather subtle and often clinal. Usually, the location of a sighting is the most reliable indication as to subspecies identification, but the migratory tendencies of this species make identifications based on location not completely reliable. Old World birds have a frontal shield with rounded top and fairly parallel sides; the tailward margin of the red unfeathered area is a smooth waving line. American birds have a frontal shield that has a fairly straight top and is less wide towards the bill, giving a marked indentation to the back margin of the red area.
Despite being a bountiful species, small populations are of course more prone to extinction. The Mariana Common Moorhen or pulattat (G. c. guami) is very rare nowadays due to destruction of habitat. Only some 300 adult birds remained in 2001, and it is listed as Endangered both federally (since 1984) and locally (Takano & Haig 2004).
In addition to the extant subspecies listed below, there are two Pleistocene paleosubspecies known from fossils. These were distinct (generally larger) forms and probably the direct ancestors of some of today's Common Moorhens: Gallinula chloropus brodkorbi from the Ichetucknee River, Florida, and an undescribed Early Pleistocene form from Dursunlu, Turkey (Louchart et al. 1998).
Species in taxonomic sequence
(population if known)
Eurasian Common Moorhen
G. c. chloropus(Linnaeus, 1758)
Ranges from Northwest Europe to North Africa and eastwards to Central Siberia and from the humid regions of southern Asia to Japan and Central Malaysia; also found in Sri Lanka and the Canary, Azores, Madeira, and Cape Verde islands. Includes the proposed subspecies correiana and indica. Southern American Common Moorhen
G. c. galeata (Lichtenstein, 1818)
Wings and back are fairly uniform dark brownish slate grey.
Found in Trinidad, the Guyanas, and from Brazil south of the Amazonas to North Argentina and Uruguay. Indo-Pacific Common Moorhen
G. c. orientalis (Horsfield, 1821)
Small, with slate grey upperwing coverts and large frontal shield.
Found in the Seychelles, Andaman Islands, and South Malaysia through Indonesia; also found in the Philippines and Palau. African Common Moorhen
G. c. meridionalis (C. L. Brehm, 1831)
Appearance is similar to orientalis, but the frontal shield is smaller.
Found in Sub-Saharan Africa and Saint Helena. Madagascan Common Moorhen
G. c. pyrrhorrhoa (A. Newton, 1861)
The undertail coverts are buff.
Found on the islands of Madagascar, Réunion, Mauritius, and the Comoros. Andean Common Moorhen
G. c. garmani (Allen, 1876)
Appearance is similar to galeata, but larger.
Found in the Andes from Peru to Northwest Argentina. Hawaiian Moorhen
G. c. sandvicensis (Streets, 1877)
Has a large frontal shield; the tarsus is reddish-orange in front. Known as ‘alae ‘ula in Hawaiian.
Subspecies is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. Antillean Common Moorhen
G. c. cerceris (Bangs, 1910)
Has a long bill and large feet and is less brown above. Known as Florida Gallinule in the USA.
Found in the Antilles, except Trinidad and Barbados; also found in South Florida. North American Common Moorhen
G. c. cachinnans (Bangs, 1915)
Appearance is similar to cerceris, but upperparts coloration more like chloropus. Also known as Common Gallinule and Marsh Hen.
Ranges from Southeast Canada south through the USA, excluding the Great Plains region, to West Panama; also found in the Galápagos and Bermuda. Subandean Common Moorhen
G. c. pauxilla (Bangs, 1915)
Appearance is similar to cerceris, but smaller.
Found in lowland areas of East Panama south to Northwest Peru. Mariana Common Moorhen
G. c. guami (Hartert, 1917)
Body plumage is very dark. Known as pulattat in Chamorro.
Subspecies is endemic to the Northern Mariana Islands. Barbados Moorhen
G. c. barbadensis (Bond, 1954)
Appearance is similar to cerceris, but with lighter head and neck, and less dull grey overall.
Subspecies is endemic to Barbados.