Waterhen, Moorhen or Gallinule – Which is It?
Growing up in Yorkshire, I called them waterhens (now often known as moorhens) and read that they were members of the rail family. After all, they were the size and shape of a chicken, they “clucked”, and laid eggs like a hen (i.e. many eggs in a clutch). As a child, during spring and summer, I would sit at the edge of a pond and talk to these birds as they sat incubating their eggs on bulky platforms made of reed stems. Usually there were 6 to 10 eggs in a nest, one laid each day, and occasionally there were as many as 15 to 20, a sign that cooperative breeding, involving more than one female, was taking place. It is a surprisingly beautiful bird if you get close to it.
When I disturbed them, the sitting bird would quietly slip off the nest and disappear into the bulrushes. Their dark brown plumage on the back and wings, and bluish-black feathers elsewhere made it difficult to see them among the vegetation and on dark-colored water. I would try to spot their chunky bright red beak with its citrus-yellow tip. As soon as I left I knew the waterhens would return to their nest. They are mainly sedentary birds and rarely leave their territory, although I might see them poking around on land during winter when the ponds freeze over. At that time you can observe their yellowish-green legs and oversized chicken-shaped feet, with lobes (small flaps of skin) that allow them to walk on floating vegetation and chase across the water in lieu of flying.
Some of my ornithological colleagues called them moorhens even though on the moors would be the last place you would find them. It turned out that the word “moor” was derived from the old English word “mere”, which in turn was the origin for the word “marsh”. It made sense since I was acquainted with Hornsea Mere, the largest natural freshwater lake in England that was home to moorhens, along with their less agile, fatter cousins known as coots, and lots of ducks, waders and sea birds.
When I moved to the United States in 1979 I thought I saw a few moorhens but was told no, they are common gallinules, the Latin word that apparently means “little hen”. To me they looked just like moorhens, and they walked on floating vegetation, behaved secretively and scampered back to the water the moment I approached them, just like the ones I watched in Britain. And then, I think it was in 1982, when they were renamed the common moorhen and that was fine by me; but a few years ago the name was switched back to common gallinule and the bird was confirmed as a separate sub-species from the Eurasian moorhens. Apparently they “cluck” a little differently, more like a “whinny, and have some slight morphological differences affecting their red truncated frontal shield.
Apparently, the North America species has relatives living on the Hawaiian Islands of O’ahu and Kaua’i. This sub-species, known as the ‘Alae ’Ula (burnt forehead), brought fire from the volcano to the home of the gods of the Hawaiian people according to Hawaiian legend, and during the flight the bird’s white forehead was burned red by the volcano’s fire.
The phenomenon of same-bird but different-name between North America and Britain is not limited to the moorhen and gallinule. Here are some other examples:
- guillemots vs. common murres: the British guillemot apparently takes its name from the French word for William – Guillaume – which was the preferred name for boys after the Norman Conquest in 1066. The North American common murre is named after the calls it makes – its purring and murmuring, along with its guttural sounds and high pitched bleats.
- divers vs. loons: the British divers (i.e. great northern, black-throated and red-throated) are likely named after their ability to catch fish by diving. The North American name loon (common loon (aka great northern), pacific, red-throated, arctic (aka black-throated) and yellow-billed) may be derived from the old English word “lumne” which means awkward or clumsy, and describes the bird’s poor ability to walk on land, or maybe it is taken from the Norwegian word “lune” meaning lament, and describes the bird’s characteristic plaintive call.
- skuas vs. jaegers: the smaller British skuas (i.e. Arctic, Pomarine and long-tailed) have the same last name as given to their larger, dumpier but ferocious cousin, the great skua, which carries its title into North America. The word skua originates from the Faroese name for the bird -skuguur – and since all skuas harass other birds into dropping or disgorging the fish they have caught, other species of this bird are called skua in Britain. The North American name jaeger comes from the German and Dutch word for hunter.
- tits vs. chickadees: Britain has seven species of tit (blue, coal, great, long-tailed, marsh, willow and crested), with this name derived from the old English word meaning “something small”. The name was in use back in the 1540s, and if you are wondering about the word being the slang term for a woman’s breast, this latter designation was inaugurated only as recent as 1928. The colorful plumage, habitat and shape of these birds distinguish them from one another. Their North American cousins are called chickadees because of their alarm call. Similarities exist between:
- coal tit vs. chestnut-backed chickadee
- willow tit vs. black-capped chickadee
Other species of chickadee are unique to North America, except for the gray-headed chickadee which is called the Siberian tit throughout its domicile in northern Eurasia.
Once you have mastered the name differences for the same species of bird in Britain and North America, you can move on to identify the 100’s of unique species that inhabit only one of these geographic entities.