You may have noticed an abundance of waterbirds that are neither ducks or swans at your local pond. The reason for this is that it’s moorhen baby season! We had some early on in the year but maybe the cold British spring meant that most chicks are born later than they used to be. Moorhens are the odd black birds that have shocking tendency to run across water. While there is several different species around the world, the ones we see in UK are Common Moorhens, Gallinula chloropus. They are shy reserved birds. If you’ve ever fed the ducks at your pond, you may notice these black hens with the red heads at the outskirts of the pond, darting in for a bite but never moving too close.
So, what are moorhens?
These waterbirds have adapted to living on water in almost any environment within the UK. You will find them in countryside water ditches and you will find them in park ponds within a busy city. They are most recognised by their red heads, yellow beaks and mainly black feathers. If you are close enough, you will see that there are some browner feathers on the back and a few white stripes. Their most endearing features will be those long powerful black/brown/yellow legs. Ever seen a moorhen run? They are fast.
Chicks are mainly fluffy black, very small wings and dark legs that look too big for the body.
Most of the time, you will see moorhens looking for food. This is more noticeable during nesting season where they have chicks to feed. Their diet consists of vegetation, other birds eggs, worms and insects.
How do moorhens behave?
Moorhens appear to have a rather skittish, nervous behaviour. They are often shy and will run away when you are too close. However, moorhens are not afraid to swim around in the open so they are fairly easy to spot. Moorhens are poor fliers as their wings are short and not very strong. However, they are able to run very fast. I occasionally see moorhen chicks running on water and lily pads at my local ponds.
Moorhens exhibit aggressive behaviour during nesting season. Where the male moorhen will sit on the eggs, the female moorhen will defend the nest site and you may occasionally see females fighting. Moorhens lay many eggs at a time, however, eggs and chicks are often preyed upon by gulls, herons, other water birds, foxes and cats. Perhaps this is why moorhens can have many broods per year. One interesting behaviour that might be unique to moorhens is that juvenile moorhens from previous broods occasionally take up babysitting duties. They will help feed and defend younger chicks that are the offspring of their parents. Unlike ducks, where ducklings are expected to find their own food, moorhen chicks are fed by parents and juveniles from previous broods.
Once juveniles show signs of having adult plumage, the parents will send them off.
Personally, I quite like moorhens. The ones where I live are rather shy and live in really small groups. I rarely see more than two together. Often, they hide between the reeds and if not for their calling to each other, you might not see them. Occasionally, they walk out of the pond and across the roads in our estate to find the other pond. Luckily, cars are few and slow so I’ve yet to see a road kill incident.
Just the other day though, Cookie, my cat, caught an adult moorhen and brought it into our back garden. I was able to get him to let go and the moorhen was able to escape. I tried catching it to check for injuries but it was too fast. In the end, I opened our back garden door and it ran out. I noticed Cookie had blood stains on him and judging by how ferocious he can be to other animals, I thought that the blood must have been the moorhens’. I was unable to check the bird for injuries which bothered me slightly but there is only so much I could have done without stressing the moorhen too much.
Do you have any moorhens where you live? Are they breeding? Let me know what you think of moorhens in the comment box below!