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 Moorhen- Fact File


Gallinula chloropus
Common resident over most of region except north-west Scotland. Influx of birds in winter.
Ponds, lakes, gravel pits, ditches, slow rivers.

Easily separated from Coot by white under-tail feathers (which it raises frequently) and white flank stripe. Colourful red and yellow bill.

33cm (13")


There must be few visitors to the Norfolk Broads who would not recognise the moorhen. It can be seen almost anywhere in East Anglia where there is a river, lake or pond.

The name moorhen is misleading and is, in fact, a corruption of mirehen or marshhen, which gives a much truer picture of its natural habitat. Since, however, it is essentially a wild bird of an independent nature, it usually keeps its distance from human intruders and, except in severe weather, does not join the rush for social security handouts of crumbs so eagerly accepted by the tamer members of the duck population.

It so happens that our kitchen window overlooks an old tree-lined moat which for years has been the domain of a family of moorhens and, although casualties from time to time change the composition of the group, there are always several birds in residence to provide a continuation of the family story.

The moat is large enough to provide living accommodation for the moorhens as well as a number of resident and visiting ducks and, except in a very hot summer, well supplied with water to cater for plenty of aquatic activities. Every spring the moorhens build themselves a nest on a raft of twigs or on the bank at the waterline, for a clutch of speckled brown eggs to bring off a hatch of four or five tiny brown-black chicks. Later they build a new nest for a second brood in an entirely new area, possibly because the water level may have dropped in the intervening period.

The chicks, tiny black bundles of fluff no bigger than golf balls, are very quickly tumbled into the water, where they swim around behind their parents at an incredible speed for their size, like little torpedoes. At this stage the struggle of existence intensifies as the parents maintain a ceaseless watch against marauders. Rats are very partial to a meal of baby waterhen, but there are many natural enemies to which the family are vulnerable at this time, and the warning clucking of the parents can often be heard as they call the chicks in behind them when possible danger threatens.

One summer day I was working in the garden when I was suddenly alerted by a harsh and almost continuous alarm noise from the moat, much more urgent than the usual warning 'kittic' made by the moorhen parents. I approached cautiously and saw the parents arranged in battle formation near the edge of the water and, after a moment the cause of the alarm became evident. Among the bushes at the side of the water was a stoat, its red back and white shirt front flashing in the dappled sunlight as it waved and snaked along the bank, in and out of the branches in a mesmeric kind of perpetual motion. Every so often it would make short rushes over the mud at the edge of the water where the moorhen family had taken refuge.

The extraordinary thing was the courage of the parents who maintained their station protecting the chicks, screaming defiance at the intruder, while the chicks themselves swam about behind their protective parents in apparent unconcern. Eventually the stoat, perhaps discouraged by my watching presence or because of the defensive screen, disappeared in the long grass, but he returned another day and, although I did not see him succeed in his attack, the number of chicks eventually diminished to two.

One gets the impression when the chicks are born that the feet are as big as the rest of the body, and this feature is even more striking after a few weeks when the youngsters are seen pecking for food on the grass. At this stage the feet appear enormous, out of all proportion to the body, rather like caricatures of traditional policemen. Of course, the big flat feet are ideal for moving around on the mud and soft ground where they find their food. When the birds become fully adult this feature is not so noticeable, and it is fascinating to watch the birds moving around with their extraordinary jerking movement of the head and white-flashed tail, looking like prim dowagers when contrasted with the bucolic shuffling of the ducks.

The aggressive territorial nature of the moorhens was demonstrated rather sadly when one of the ducks, which had been sitting on some eggs in another part of the garden, came plodding back with enormous pride followed by two tiny black ducklings which she fussily led down to the water to introduce to her companions. The moorhens immediately adopted threatening tactics and, in spite of the mother's protective manoeuvres they managed to seize and drown one of the ducklings. The other lasted a few more days before meeting the same fate. It seemed that, while accepting the presence of the mature ducks on the same piece of water, they regarded the additional ducklings as a threat to their territory and possible food supplies which called for eliminating tactics.

The moorhen's territorial insistence was again demonstrated rather more amusingly one day last summer when I happened to look out of the window to see a hedgehog being escorted out of the area by one of the moorhens following at a distance of some two or three feet, looking rather like a gamekeeper escorting an intruder off his private property. So far as I know the hedgehog never returned so I presume he, or she, got the message.

And so our kitchen window provides a comfortable year-round 'hide' from which to observe the activities of our feathered guests, and if it does mean that the milk occasionally boils over or the bacon is over-cooked when viewing takes priority, the entertainment is cheap at the price!

By Norman Mackley

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Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.