2014 August – Moorhen



The common moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) lives in aquatic habitats. A strong swimmer, she pumps her head in effort as she propels herself through the water. Occasionally her feet come out of the water in front of her, helping her maneuver over waterlogged debris. Instead of webbed feet, moorhen kickers are rather like those of a chicken, oversized with very long toes. The toes allow the moorhen to walk on grasses and other plants floating on the surface of the water. She dips, dabbles and dives for a wide range of dietary items including seeds, leaves and roots of aquatic plants as well as snails, small fish, insects, berries, and worms.

The little chick in orphan care has been dubbed Marilyn for her exaggerated, saucy walk. Her big feet must be managed with care to avoid tripping, and a high-stepping mince seems to work best. The adult birds strut about and forage for insects and seeds, pecking repeatedly on the ground in a chicken-like manner. The moorhen can fly, but reluctantly. They do migrate in some parts of their range.

Moorhens live in tall grasses along the edge of waterways such as marshes, ponds and canals. The male woos the female by bringing her gifts of nesting materials and presenting them with a dashing fan of his tail. The pair builds several cup-shaped nests of grasses along the edge of the water or even among floating reeds. Those spurs on the babies’ wings help them climb in and out of the nests.

The female lays four to twelve eggs. Soon after hatching, the chicks begin bobbing about in the water and learning to find food. The parents may hatch more than one brood per year.

Common moorhens are rare around here. A check of the bird sightings lists at both Gilbert Water Ranch and Boyce Thompson Arboretum indicate the moorhen is only rarely seen, and only in the winter. How Marilyn came to be on her own, in the desert, is a true mystery.

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