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The common moorhen

17 November 2015


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The common moorhen was first described scientifically by Linnaeus in 1758 as Gallinula chloropus based on a specimen that was collected in England, and this scientific name is still valid. The name chloropus is Latin for green foot which is somewhat of a misnomer because the legs and feet are yellow while the upper parts of the lower portions of the legs are orange to orange-red. To confuse matters further, the legs of an adult, smaller, lesser moorhen Gallinula angulata are greenish. Juvenile, common moorhens are dark brown above, the bill and frontal shield are greenish-brown, the eyes are grey-brown and the legs and feet are olive-grey to greenish. It therefore appears that the specimen on which the original description was based was an immature bird, hence the reference to green feet in its scientific name.

The common moorhen is some 30 to 38 cm tall and weighs 175 to 375 g. The sexes are alike in plumage colouration, but the male is slightly larger than the female. The adults are overall slaty black with a paler nape that has an olive-brown tinge. The tail is black with an olive-brown or glossy green tinge. The upper wing coverts are slaty blue-grey, and there is a white stripe along the upper flanks. The bill is bright red with a yellow tip and there is a bright red frontal shield, while the eyes are crimson red. It makes a clucking and chattering call. The common moorhen is sometimes confused with the lesser moorhen but the latter has a yellow bill and greenish legs.

Its distribution is global in regions from about 65° N to 40° S, but it does not occur in forests and deserts and Australia. In Africa it occurs south of the Sahara Desert from Senegal east to Ethiopia and south to South Africa. It is wide-spread in southern Africa but is absent from the Kalahari region, eastern Namibia south of 20° S and east of 18° W, and also from the north-western Karoo. It is a locally common waterbird that is especially numerous in the Nile River floodplain of the Waterberg region in years of good rainfall. It is a resident bird that is largely sedentary although it does move around in response to changes in water level. It moves away from ephemeral water bodies and wetlands when they become too shallow.

www.leopard.tvThe habitat is marshes, swamps, ponds, pans, streams, rivers, canals, water-filled ditches, flooded grasslands, temporary ponds on floodplains, and lakes and dams with fringing, emergent vegetation. It is usually associated with fresh water but along the coast of Namibia it does occur in brackish water. It requires sheltered sites with open water but avoids open areas.

Common moorhens occur alone, in pairs or small family groups. They swim on open water or wade in shallow water or wet grasslands. They are usually active diurnally but may be active on moonlit nights. A common moorhen is usually bold but when it is disturbed it will dive and swim into cover. When walking, the tail is depressed or held horizontally, but when it is nervous or excited the tail is cocked to expose the black and white coverts under the tail while the tail is flicked frequently. It will climb into reeds and other swamp vegetation and balances adeptly on twigs and thin branches. It swims well with the head raised and being moved back and forth. Its flight is heavy and the legs dangle during short flights but are extended beyond the tail in longer ones.

The common moorhen usually roosts in bushes or trees, often on thin branches, but it may also roost on the ground in reedbeds and on old display platforms and nests. When common moorhens meet they approach each other slowly before hurrying past with lowered heads before relaxing to start foraging.

Foraging is done while swimming or walking on floating plants, either in the open or under cover. On water the head is dipped into the water to sift out food items, almost upending at times, but it rarely dives to forage. On firm ground it eats invertebrates, seeds and fruits from the ground and plants and will clamber over plant stems to do so. It occasionally steals food from the great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus or other types of waterbird. It is omnivorous in diet and feeds opportunistically. The diet in southern Africa is poorly known but it does include water plants, berries, molluscs, worms, arachnids (spiders and scorpions), insects, tadpoles, carrion, algae, small fishes and bird’s eggs.

The common moorhen is monogamous and territorial and nests alone but adjacent nests can be as close as 30 m. Courtship is unusual in that the females initially compete for the males, with the heaviest females winning most of the agonistic encounters and selecting small males with large fat reserves. This is being done because such males can incubate for longer times than males with fewer fat reserves. It allows an incubating female to conserve energy so as to relay eggs rapidly if it becomes necessary. Courting and mating never occurs on water and involve intricate displays.

www.leopard.tvThe nest is built by both sexes with the male bringing the nesting material and the female building the nest. More material may be added while incubating. The nest is a shallow bowl of plant stems, sedges and other plant material with an outside diameter of 180 to 230 mm, a height of 80 to 120 mm and a cup with a diameter of 120 to 170 mm. It is usually well concealed in or among reeds, sedges or bulrushes, but it may also be built in the lower branches of a flooded tree. Birds of the previous brood may help in building a nest. In north-eastern South Africa, laying occurs year-round and four to nine eggs are laid. Sometimes two females may lay eggs in the same nest and there may be up to 11 eggs in it. The eggs are incubated for 21 to 22 days by both sexes but the male does the bulk of it and the female does not incubate at night.

Hatchlings are covered in black down except for a bare, rose-red and blue patch on the crown and a red shield. The upper parts may have a slight green gloss and the bill is deep red with a yellow to orange tip. The first-hatched chicks are led or occasionally carried away in the bill by one adult while the other one still incubates the rest of the eggs. The hatchlings swim well from an age of three days and can dive and swim up to 3 m under the water when they are eight days old. The parents, and sometimes birds of the previous brood, care for the nestlings which become fully independent at an age of 21 days, although they may be cared for until they are six weeks old. The down is fledged when the nestlings are 40 to 50 day old.

A ringed bird was recovered 18 years and seven months later which implies a long lifespan. The common moorhen is mainly preyed upon by tawny eagles Aquila rapax, domesticated cats and wild, mammal carnivores. A case is also known of a common moorhen that was killed by a red-knobbed coot Fulica cristata.



Hockey, P A R, W R J Dean and P G Ryan (Eds) 2005. Roberts – Birds of southern Africa, seventh edition. Cape Town: Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, pp 334 - 335.


article by Prof J du P Bothma



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