Wildlife Column: Magical nature and on the doorstep

One of our most striking and familiar water-birds is the moorhen, waterhen, or watter-hen (Gallinula chloropsis); which with its over-sized feet and bright red knobbly beak is unmistakable.

Thursday, 3rd June 2021, 12:00 am
Moorhen taken by Prof Ian Rotherham.

Although moorhens can be quite inquisitive and approachable once they are used to people, they do have an air of nervousness about them, and will flash their double ‘scut’ of white outer tail feathers. This is a moorhen equivalent of a nervous twitch or tick perhaps as a displacement activity in response to perceived danger. When this is the case, then they will quickly disappear into dense waterside vegetation such as reedmace or phragmites reed.

The other key feature of the common moorhen is its distinctive call which remains characteristic and evocative of wetlands everywhere. The loud ‘krrrrrruk’ call can be heard a good distance away from rivers, canals and ponds, and the anxiety call is a higher pitched fore-shortened version repeated in a more subdued way as the bird scuttles off. I can often hear the louder calls from the nearby ponds in Oakes Park or even from a neighbour’s large pond up the road if a bird has been so bold as to make the journey across. This does feel like a real bit of magical nature and just on the doorstep.

In times past, it was commonplace for local children and youths in wetland areas like Lincolnshire and Norfolk to take the eggs to eat. In the former, the practice was to fry them up with bacon! In shallow water the young urchins simply waded out to the nests to collect the eggs and in deeper water attached a dessert spoon to a cane in order to scoop them up. The nests are generally built on floating platforms of vegetation or else on discarded human trash like a shopping trolley, a pram, or other similar objects. Being situated in open water provides protection from local foxes perhaps, but in old-time Lincolnshire, not from hungry peasant-folk. Sadly a good proportion of moorhen nests are indeed lost to predators.

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