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Common Moorhen
(Gallinula chloropus)

Common Moorhen

General description

The Common Moorhen is a distinctive species, with dark plumage apart from the white undertail, white flank stripe, yellow legs and a rounded, red frontal shield leading to a yellow-tipped bill.

Sexes are similar.

Juveniles start off black with upper parts becoming gradually browner. The bill and frontal shield are greenish brown.

Name & classification

Scientific name:
Gallinula chloropus

Common names:
Common Moorhen, Swamp Chicken (English)
Grootwaterhoender (Afrikaans)

Roberts VII english name:
Common Moorhen

Roberts VII scientific name:
Gallinula chloropus

Rails, Crakes and Coots (Rallidae)

Further information



Common Moorhens will consume a wide variety of vegetable material and small aquatic creatures. They forage beside or in the water, sometimes walking on lilypads or upending in the water to feed.

They are often secretive, but can become tame in some areas.

The birds are territorial during breeding season. The nest is a basket built on the ground in dense vegetation. Laying starts in spring when around 8 eggs are usually laid per female early in the season; a brood later in the year usually has only 5–8 or fewer eggs.

Nests may be re-used by different females. Incubation lasts about three weeks. Both parents incubate and feed the young which fledge after 40–50 days, becoming independent usually a few weeks thereafter.

When threatened, the young may cling to the parents' body, after which the adult birds fly away to safety, carrying their offspring with them.

Natural distribution:
All over Southern Africa apart from desert regions.

The Common Moorhen lives around well-vegetated marshes, ponds, canals and other wetlands.

Despite loss of habitat in parts of its range, the common moorhen remains plentiful and widespread.

The name mor-hen has been recorded in English since the 13th century. The word moor here is an old sense meaning marsh; the species is not usually found in moorland. An older name, common waterhen, is more descriptive of the bird's habitat.

A "watercock" is not a male "waterhen" but the rail species Gallicrex cinerea, not closely related to the common moorhen. "Water rail" usually refers to Rallus aquaticus, again not closely related.

The scientific name Gallinula chloropus comes from the Latin Gallinula (a small hen or chicken) and the Greek chloropus (khloros green or yellow, pous foot).

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