Florida Moorhen (Common) - Gallinula Chloropus
The Moorhen is an easy to recognize water bird that can often be seen gliding gracefully close to shore in the Everglades and marsh waterways of Florida. These slate grey, red crested birds have sleek, compact bodies and can be seen swimming, diving and rearing their young often times among areas with vegetative shorelines. Members of the Rallidae family of birds, commonly referred to among bird enthusiasts as “Rails” they number over 142 species worldwide. Nine of which make their home in the United States - the Black Rail, Clapper Rail, King Rail, Virginia Rail, Yellow Rail, American Coot, Common Moorhen, Purple Gallinule and Sora. All of these species can be seen within the State of Florida. By far, the Common Moorhen is the most widely distributed member of the “Rail” family with territory ranging the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa - absent only from Australia, the Artic and Antarctic and desert regions. One subspecies makes the Hawaiian Islands their exclusive home, that is the Hawaiian Gallinule.
Moorhens are a highly visible species with their vivid red frontal crest and yellow beak. Moorhens glide in duck like fashion, even though their toes have no lobes or webbing like the Egret and Heron common to our Florida waterways. Instead they are equipped with very long toes and often can be seen using a “step and swim” type motion lifting their feet above their body while floating. This unusual swimming style is the method Moorhens use to avoid entanglement in the aquatic vegetation under foot. Juvenile chicks are often in tow and quite impressive miniature versions with their tiny red “crests” riding close behind the parents with the family quick to scurry back to their shoreline nest if any danger arises. Moorhens are extremely vocal using their loud signature “kurr’uk” call to announce their presence or warn others if a predator approaches. Moorhens are opportunistic omnivorous feeders. Omnivorous, they eat all types water plants, fallen fruit, grasses, insects, mollusks, seeds, snails and worms. Moorhens, like many species of birds, have kleptoparasitic tendencies – often stealing food from other birds through acts of piracy and other deceptive tactics - hence eating more than the “honest” foragers!
Similar to the Grebe Bird Species , Moorhens build nests of aquatic vegetation, reeds and grasses but above water level closer to shoreline with a ramp leading to the water. Eggs are laid in shore side nests with descending oval pockets in clutches of 5 to 10 eggs. The relatively short incubation of 3 weeks is shared by both parents. Newly hatched downy chicks are black in color then later develop the deep grey mantles, and white wing and undertail coverts of the adult species. Baby Moorhens do sport from birth the tiny red crests that identify this subspecies. The crest coloring is a dull red until they mature and the bill initially has a black tip instead of yellow to help camouflage the baby birds. Moorhen chicks are born with spurs on their wings that help them climb into the nest with fledging taking place in 40-50 days. Lifespan is rather long for this little “red-headed” waterfowl - averaging between 9 to 11 years. Predation occurs by the American Alligators , American Crocodile, Snakes, and land mammals – particularly by Raccoons who feed on the eggs as well as the newly hatched young along the shoreline.
Conservation status of the Moorhen is listed as “Threatened” in most areas of the world but the entire Rail family is protected in the United States under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The migratory Rail species warrant protection, not so much due to rarity of species, nor were they prosecuted in large numbers by the feather industry like the Great White Egret , but rather due to the significant decline in populations as a result of their dwindling woodland marsh habitats.
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