Monday Bird of the Week No.38 – Moorhen

I’ve decided for the next few weeks to focus on birds that we maybe ignore. They are birds that are often around us, in parks especially, but as a result not given due notice. So we will start with the humble Moorhen.

A question nobody has ever asked me, is “why do we call it a moorhen when it doesn’t live on the moor?” I don’t think this failure of curiosity is because everybody knows the origin of the name, I think it’s because nobody thinks about them. But it seems a strange contradiction.

The answer lies in a less common name, the Marsh Hen. This in fact is the original English meaning of the word ‘moor’ or ‘mor’, a swampy area of flat open land. Hence why RSPB Old Moor is a wetland, not a moorland as we’d now think of it.

These habitats were at one time more closely linked, and we find many wetland birds breed on upland areas for this reason. But as man has ‘managed’ this land to create grazing areas, grouse and pheasant shoots, and to collect peat, we have seen the two separate.

Juvenile Moorhen
Heslington Lake, Sept 2015

Today you are as likely to see a Moorhen on your local pond as on a marsh. They have adapted well to human habitation and we once had one that came and sat in a tree in the garden, taking food that spilled from bird feeders.

They are common worldwide, having spread across Europe and Asia, with populations in the south of Africa too.

They are a distinctive bird, although I am surprised how often they are confused with the much larger Coot. They are however closely related, both being grouped in with the rails and crakes.

Outside of the facial ‘shield’, probably their most distinctive feature are their giant unwebbed feet, which are an adaptation to swampy conditions, spreading weight out to help keep the bird from sinking.

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I welcome thoughts, comments and questions, so please feel free to share anything at all. Thanks, David

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