Common Gallinules Swim Like Ducks Without Webbed Feet!

Here’s a resident of the pond that is always fun to watch: the Common Gallinule.  Also (previously) known as moorhens, these gallinules live at the edges of our freshwater wetlands. We see them year-round here on the island, and sometimes they are more visible than others. 

They are small, duck-like birds that are dark gray-brown with a striking yellow and red bill.  We’ll be looking at some birds that share some similar characteristics.

They have a funny call that always sounds a little hysterical to me. In fact, the entry for this bird at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says,

Concealed gallinules may emit sudden, loud calls that startle the unfamiliar observer into thinking there is a very large, dangerous, intoxicated chicken just around the bend. 

If you live along a freshwater wetland, listen for this:

Not a Coot

I usually have to look twice to be sure I am not looking at an American Coot.  Coots are slightly larger, and are almost solid black with a white bill.  They have similar profiles and swimming styles.

The Coot is on the left above and the Gallinule is on the right.  The same two birds were joined by a third (a Gallinule) in the photos below.  You can see the size difference a little more clearly, as well as the color differences.

Not a Purple Gallinule

Another strikingly similar bird is the Purple Gallinule.  This brilliantly colored bird (one field guide calls it gaudy) can be found occasionally in South Carolina and might even breed here.  I took these photos in Panama, however, and have yet to see one on our home turf.

Unwebbed Feet

Like many other birds in this rail/crake/swamphen family, Gallinules do not have webbed feet.  They have long toes that they can use to propel them through the water but also come in handy when they need to walk across or balance on floating vegetation. The lower photo is a juvenile.

Worth the Wait

The Common Gallinules here on the island tend to stay in the cover at the edges of the ponds, only rarely venturing forth.  I am a big fan of finding a quiet place to watch and observe, and eventually they emerge and come out into the open.