Woman holding binoculars Join today and get outside at one of our 60+ wildlife sanctuaries.
Woman holding binoculars Join today and get outside at one of our 60+ wildlife sanctuaries.
Monarch caterpillar

Find a Bird - BBA1

Breeding Bird Atlas 1 Species Accounts

Common Moorhen
Gallinula chloropus

State Status

Special Concern

Egg Dates

mid-May to early August

Number of Broods

one; may re-lay if first attempt fails.

Common Moorhen

Formerly known as the Common Gallinule, the moorhen is a widely distributed breeding species in freshwater marshes and weedy ponds in the eastern United States. It is common in the southern portion of its range, but in Massachusetts, where it nears its northeastern breeding limit, it has always been considered rare and local, and there are fewer locations where it now breeds than at any time in history. Certainly, ecological changes and the draining and filling of wetlands have taken their toll on its meager population.

The first Common Moorhens normally arrive in Massachusetts during the later part of April. Unlike their marsh relatives, the rails, they are as likely to be seen as heard because they prefer the edges of open areas in the marsh. Some of their vocalizations are similar to those of the Pied-billed Grebe but can readily be distinguished with experience. The call is loud, harsh, and varied, consisting of a series of clucking sounds. Also, chicken-like grunts and clucks are frequently uttered, and during the nesting season moorhens often make a distinctive explosive croak.

The nest, a low bulky structure with a shallow cup, is constructed of cattails of the previous year’s growth. Typically, a runway of rushes or cattails extends from the rim of the nest to the water, allowing easy access to and from the nest. Pairs may construct additional vegetation platforms on which to brood the young. The normal clutch contains seven to twelve buffy eggs marked with irregular spotting. Incubation, which is shared by both sexes, lasts about 21 days. The precocial chicks are easily distinguished from the similar young of other marsh species. They are covered with black down, and the red bill has a black tip with red skin at its base. Young grow slowly, not reaching adult size until nearly two months of age. During this time, they stay close to one or both parents, feeding in vegetation at the edge of open areas, where their large feet and long toes enable them to traverse the marsh plants with ease. They are adept at swimming, and their head-jerking manner is distinctive. Twelve records of Massachusetts broods range from June 12 to August 7, and the August dates included families with very small young. The number of young with single birds or pairs ranged from two to nine (BOEM, Petersen). Although two broods are reared in the South, there is no evidence that this occurs here.

By late summer and early fall, Common Moorhens are most conspicuous as gatherings of family groups that actively feed together in preparation for the southward migration. Most residents depart in late September or early October for the southern United States. Occasional reports late in fall may represent either lingering residents or rare migrants. There are winter records of birds on outer Cape Cod and Nantucket, where they apparently survive in mild winters.

The Common Moorhen is listed as a species of special concern in Massachusetts.

Map Legend and Data Summary

Atlas 1 data collected from 1975-1979

map legend
rare and local in freshwater marshes; dramatic decline in recent years

Note: rare and local in freshwater marshes; dramatic decline in recent years

Richard A. Forster