In today’s exploration of the avian world, we’ll plunge into the boggy wetlands, and encounter some species of birds we haven’t yet discussed. Gallinules are a colorful and interesting type of bird most often found in swamps, along overgrown lakeshores, and in marshes, although they may be spotted outside that range if you’re looking closely. Members of the family of birds known as Rails, the Gallinules are relatively large, the size of small chickens, and distinctly colored. And, they are definitely not ducks! Let’s take a look.
We’ll be focusing on the two species of Gallinule commonly found in the US: the Purple Gallinule, found primarily in the southeast near the gulf states, and the Common Gallinule, now often referred to as the Common Moorhen, found throughout most of the eastern US and into parts of the southwestern US as well.
We’ll start with the Common Gallinule, or Common Moorhen. Why is it called a “Moorhen” when its scientific genus is Gallinula? I have no idea! But, this large Rail is found throughout the eastern and southwestern US, as well as most of the rest of the world. In the British Isles, it is also called the Common Waterhen. But, for me, having grown up with my copy of Birds of North America, the Golden Field Guide, I’m sticking with Common Gallinule!
Whatever you choose to call it, this bird has many unique features. We can start with the bill – a yellow bill with a bright red facial shield that is starkly in contrast with its darker colored body.
While younger birds lack the bright red color, this is nonetheless the easiest way to distinguish a Common Gallinule from its even more common companion and cousin in the rail family – the American Coot. Coots have a white bill, and are therefore easily distinguished from the Common Gallinule. If you see the white, you are definitely looking at a Coot. Otherwise, you have spotted a Gallinule. (or, Moorhen!)
In the photo below, you can see a juvenile and adult together – notice the bill color, even with the juvenile bird, is nowhere near the white bill that you would see in a Coot:
Another feature of Gallinules, which comes from their being part of the Rail family, is the feet. Gallinules have bright yellow legs, with yellow feet having extremely long toes! These feet are not webbed at all, yet Gallinules are surprisingly good swimmers. The toes give them a real edge when it comes to walking through lily pads, hyacinth, and other water foliage – they can step right on and over the thickest, most tangled weeds.
Now, let’s move on the the Purple Gallinule. This cousin in the Rail family is one of the most brilliantly colored birds in North America. When they were handing out saturated, fluorescent colors, the Purple Gallinule was definitely first in line!
Note the red facial shield on the beak, as with the Common Gallinule. But you can’t miss the other bright colors! From the deep indigo of the head, neck and breast, to the aquamarine colors of the back and sides, to the veridian wings and tail, with the white cap topping it off, this is one strikingly painted bird.
Of course, the Purple Gallinule has bright yellow legs and long toes as well. As you can see, the toes are great for grappling reeds and branches, as well as walking across weeds and lily pads. This is great help as they forage for both vegetation (usually small flowers, berries, seeds and tender shoots) and also small aquatic creatures.
So there you have the North American Gallinule species – members of the Rail family. Keep an eye out for these beautiful birds the next time you find yourself near a river, lake, marsh or swamp!