The Dusky Moorhen Gallinula tenebrosa is a member of the rail family (Rallidae), a huge group of both land and water birds that are often among the first species to occupy islands. Sadly they’re often the first to be exterminated by humans when they eventually get there. On a happier note, they belong to that part of the family called gallinules, a group with tremendous personalities.
The word gallinule is sometimes used for any member of the rail family but is usually these days reserved for birds that look like moorhens (such as coots, native hens and swamphens). This entirely because the original gallinule was the European Moorhen (that they call the common moorhen, so we Australians can’t have that name, even though our version is particularly common). Like many of its other relatives the dusky moorhen has a short, dagger-like beak, long toes, a face shield and a highly animated tail.
Gallinules are fascinating to watch because of their rather engaging behaviour. They live in close-knit families or pairs, and enjoy the company of others of their own kind, unless they threaten their families or food; then they get nasty. They are excellent communicators, though their voices are limited. They use body language, especially with their tails. The dusky moorhen has two slender white triangles under its tail which it uses in a kind of semaphore by keeping the tail down, up or by flicking it up and down at various speeds: slow when walking cautiously around, fast when agitated, kept upright when alarmed, tail down when relaxed.
Dusky moorhens are blackish in appearance: their wings with a brownish tinge and their breasts with a greyish tinge. They have a yellow-tipped red beak with a small shield above the beak, protecting the face. This shield is more probably used for communication, mate attraction and acts as a cue for feeding young than any real protection. Its eyes are dark (black-looking). The legs are multicolored: red above the greyish knee and greenish grey below, except when breeding, in which case the lower legs are bright red (as can be seen in the parent birds in the photo). It has long webless toes for manipulating and clambering amongst cumbungi, reeds and other water plants. Younger birds have a dull greyish or reddish bill and are browner (or less black) than the adults. Chicks are black and fluffy and have a red head and beak at first, but lose the red head feathers in a few days.The chicks can swim soon after hatching and follow their devoted parents around until fully fledged.
Dusky moorhens commonly breed in the Goulburn Wetlands and nearby Mulwaree River. Their habitat requirements are reeds, rushes, cumbungi or other thick vegetation lining rivers or ponds, which don’t have to be particularly large. They will also live where grassy lawns run up to rivers and ponds. They are vegetarians, mainly eating water plants, but will also graze on land near water. Moorhens tolerate the presence of other birds and can be quite gregarious, as mentioned above. They can also be very aggressive to each other or any perceived threat. It is not uncommon to see moorhens flying furiously at, chasing or running after other moorhens. Having said that, they can also be unexpectedly tolerant. In the Goulburn Wetlands in 2013 a moorhen made friends with at least one of the coots, a completely different species and a possible competitor for food. The two birds were always seen together and would approach each other at close quarters, often eating from the same water plants and follow each other around. Whether this was a real interspecific friendly relationship, whether one bird tolerated the other or used the other to find the best bits or whether it was merely a chance occurrence is something I cannot say at the moment.
Dusky moorhens are the third most common wetland bird after grey teal and Eurasian coots. Their most common life cycle pattern is to breed up into a large group in one area, many birds residing in the same place for years. Then the group will disperse to other places, leaving only a couple behind.