The Moorhen - Gallinula chloropus
The moorhen is one of the most common and comical birds of the British waterways and ranges not only all over Europe but across every continent except Australia and Antarctica.
The moorhen is a medium sized wading bird that vaguely resembles a small chicken, only with longer legs and considerably less brain. It has grey/black plumage, highlighted by a white streak of feathers on its flanks which helps to distinguish it in the water from the similarly common Coot. The bill of the moorhen is a striking red fading to a yellow tip which nicely sets off its yellow legs with their red topped garters. The Latin Gallinula chloropus literally translated means 'green legged little hen', probably due to the chicken-like behaviour of the moorhen as it pecks and scrabbles at the ground around pond edges.
Adult moorhens look very similar, the only way to tell the sexes apart being to spot a pair. The larger one is the male. They have short, pert, upright tails and are known in Scotland as the 'cuddy' - a name for a horse with a cropped tail. Often the white flash of the tail is all you will see as they hotfoot it into cover when disturbed. They are a rather ungainly flyer and prefer short flurries over the surface of the water, their legs dangling gracelessly beneath them.
Baby moorhens are the most fabulous chicks, appearing to be a small ball of fluff on stilts, their legs horrendously out of proportion to the rest of their bodies. Moorhens have long, dainty legs, finished off with enormous, ungainly feet and spend their time tiptoeing through reeds and other wetland vegetation, or swimming strongly on open water.
The moorhen can be found on nearly all freshwater ponds, lakes, rivers, streams, ditches, canals, marshes and fens. It is not choosey over where it lives, being as happy to live alongside people as it is to inhabit the countryside. You are more than likely to find it skulking in your local park, happily scoffing bread rather than ducking under the water to nibble on floating vegetation or scratching at the banks for water invertebrates and snails. They have a most disconcerting habit of lurking on the edges of towpaths in dense vegetation, leaping into the water with a startled 'KRUK!' should you happen to pass too close.
During courtship, both male and female moorhens go through an elaborate and flirtatious display of tail flicking. This is usually after the males have had a boisterous and noisy scrap in the water, lying on their backs and clawing at each other with their three toed feet. The male and female will approach each other with their heads lowered and pass each other, fluffing up their tail feathers as they go. There are various displays both in and out of the water, but copulation only takes place on dry land.
Once mates have been decided upon a rather messy and haphazard nest appears made of dead vegetation, sometimes constructed with urgency which then lapses into disinterest. It resembles a platform rather than a nest and normally floats on the water, anchored to either overhanging branches or to reeds and rushes.
And once again a couple from the brood
Seek their old birth place - and in safetys mood
Lodge there their flags and lay though danger comes
It dares and tries and cannot reach their homes
And so they hatch their eggs and sweetly dream
On their shelfed nests that bridge the gulpy stream
A clutch of about 5-10 browny buff eggs are laid which hatch after about 3 weeks, sometimes as early as March. Moorhens can sometimes manage three broods a year if conditions are good. Both the male and the female take turns in caring for their young, the pair being very teretorial for this time. The moorhen families I have seen seem to stay together for quite a long time, the juveniles still asking for food from their parents when they are almost fully grown and more than capable of looking after themselves!
The name 'moorhen' is somewhat misleading as the bird doesn't normally inhabit the moors at all. It is more likely this is a corrupted form of 'merehen', a mere being a freshwater lake found in northern England. Other British names include the 'stankhen' or 'stankie' as the moorhen can often be found on slow moving or stagnant pools, and the very descriptive 'Skitty' based on the moorhens rather unpredictable behaviour.
'British Birds: Their Folklore, Names and Literature - Francesca Greenoak ISBN 0-7136-4814-7