By James Masek, Wildlife Biologist

As the name implies, the common moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) is a common member of the rail family. This marsh bird is present worldwide with the exception of the continents of Australia and Antarctica. In Alabama, the common moorhen is present statewide during the spring and summer months. The common moorhen is a year round resident of Alabama’s Gulf Coast wetlands.

The common moorhen is also known as “chicken-foot coot,” “red-billed mud hen,” “water hen,” and “water chicken.” These local names result from the common moorhen’s appearance. It is a uniformly gray chicken-like bird with a short, red bill tipped with yellow. The legs of the common moorhen are yellow. A line of white feathers on its side distinguishes the common moorhen from the American coot. 

While the common moorhen will occasionally feed on land, it is more likely to be seen picking up food as it walks among or on floating plants. It also swims and dives for seeds, grass, rootlets, soft parts of water plants as well as snails, grasshoppers and other insects.

Nesting occurs from May through July. The nest is a well-rimmed cup constructed of dead vegetation and lined with grass. The nest is often located over water one to three feet deep. The male assists the female with construction of the nest as well as the incubation and care of the young. The nest could contain 8-10 cinnamon-to-olive-colored eggs with brown spotting that are incubated for 18-21 days. The young are able to fly at 42-49 days old. 

The common moorhen is a good swimmer and diver, despite lacking webbed feet. The chicken-like feet enable the bird to walk on floating vegetation and to climb through the dense marsh emergent vegetation.The common moorhen is not shy and will usually allow a close approach by humans. When threatened, it is more likely to dive than fly. The flight is a clumsy act of a half-running, half-flying technique with the bird just skimming the surface of the water.

The common moorhen prefers freshwater marshes of cattails, bulrushes, and ditches of open water. They will also utilize small patches of cattails along the edge of a lake or river.
Although the common moorhen is a very common bird in Alabama, its preferred marsh-like habitat limits its encounters with humans. If you spend much time in the marsh or plan on spending time there, keep an eye out for a swimming chicken with a yellow-tipped, bright red bill. You may observe one of the most common marsh birds – the common moorhen.