Gallinules abound in our Louisiana marshes

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

Common Gallinules are chicken-like waterbirds regularly found in marshy wetlands in our piney woods landscape. They are really handsome birds with the yellow-tipped red bill and red forehead being striking field marks. Unlike their dark blue cousins, the Purple Gallinules, the head, neck and breast are a bit plain, being a bright charcoal grey. The upper body is a lighter gray brown. A distinct white stripe stands out down each side. The outer tail feathers are white.

Like chickens, Common Gallinules walk around quite a bit showing yellow legs, feet and toes.

So, their drum sticks are substantial but breast are much reduced.

Common Gallinules were once called Common Moorhens with the species in both North America and Europe. Ornithologists, however, concluded that the two species were separate. As a result, the common and scientific names of the New World species were changed.

Common Gallinules were also once called Florida Gallinules. This name is a bit surprising because the birds are found throughout the eastern half of the USA. However, the Tricolored Heron which occupies a similar geographic range was long known as the Louisiana Heron.

Trying to figure out how professional ornithologists choose common names for birds is a bit perplexing!

Common Gallinules are excellent swimmers and rarely walk about on lily pads like their Purple Gallinule cousins. As Kenn Kaufman, one of the country's well known ornithologist, says ". It swims buoyantly bobbing its head: it also walks and runs on open ground near water and clambers about through reeds and cattails above the water. Related to the American Coot and often found with it, but not so bold, spending more time hiding in the marsh."

The ability for Common Gallinules to disappear into marsh vegetation makes them really difficult to hunt. And, yes, they are game birds. I've never personally ever been in gallinule habitat and had a chance to "harvest" one (or more). I do understand that most hunters consider them to be far better culinary fare than their cousin the American Coot. However, I do hunt and eat coots so maybe I'll get a chance one day to find out if there is that much difference in table fare between the two cousins.

It is really hard to get any gallinule, Purple or Common, to fly. They have short, rounded wings and, like coots, run across the water flapping their wings to get airborne. Often, they fail, and just collapse into the water and dive to avoid whatever real or imagined threat frightened them!

However, all three of the referenced species clearly can fly great distances which they do when retreating from winter cold in northern climes.

Common Gallinules are birds of freshwater marshes. Nests are built by both parents and are solidly constructed platforms of reeds, bulrushes, or cattails. They may have ramps to the water.

Sometimes platforms are built for brooding or resting.

Young birds can swim well shortly after hatching. The young are fed by the parents for about 3 weeks before they become more or less independent. However, parents continue to feed them for an additional 6 weeks. These birds are omnivorous and feed in water, while walking or climbing through vegetation.

Food includes leaves, stems and seeds of water plants, fruits and berries of terrestrial plants as well as insects, spiders, earthworms, snails, other mollusks, and tadpoles. Common behavior involves turning over waterlily pads to find snails and other invertebrates.