Birds – Common Gallinule

(Gallinula galeata)

Called also : FLORIDA GALLINULE; WATER HEN; RED-BILLED MUD HEN; BLUE RAIL

Length—12 to 14 inches.

Male and Female—A bare, bright red shield on forehead, same color as bill; plumage uniform dark bluish or grayish black, darkest on head and neck; washed with olive brown on back and shoulders, and fading to whitish underneath; flanks conspicuously streaked with white; space under tail white; legs greenish yellow, reddish at joint.

Range—Temperate and tropical America, nesting from Ontario and New England to Brazil and Chili, and wintering from our southern states southward.

Season—Summer resident or transient summer visitor, from May to October, north of the southern states.

There is a popular impression, for which the early ornithologists are doubtless responsible, that all gallinules are birds of the tropics; but this so-called Florida species crosses the Canadian borders in no small numbers every summer, and nests are also constantly reported in our northern and middle states. The truth probably is that the range of the Florida gallinule has not extended, but that within the last half century a hundred bird students scour our woods, meadows, and marshes for every enthusiast that tramped over them fifty years ago; and we are just becoming thoroughly acquainted with many’ of our birds when the gunners, milliners, cats, and other fatal accompaniments of a civilization that in many respects is still barbaric, threaten to exterminate the sadly decreased numbers left us to enjoy.

Gallinules, although wild, shy, and timid creatures, or they would be no kin of the rails, wade more than they and swim expertly. It is amusing to watch their heads bob in rhythm with their feet as they rest lightly on the water. In brackish pools rather than salt ones, and preferably around fresh water lakes and meadow brooks, they keep well concealed among the sedges while the sun is high or when danger threatens, coming boldly out to feed on the mud flats at dusk, or when they think themselves unobserved. Apparently they tolerate other gallinules’ society only if they must. Quarrels arising from jealousies over an infringement of territorial rights frequently occur.

A gallinule strides from its grassy screen with grace and elegance, curling its toes when it lifts its large foot, as if it had taken a course of Delsarte exercises. Wading into the shallow pool, still curling its long toes before plunging its foot down-ward, and tipping its tail at every step, showing the white feathers below it, the bird strides along, close to the shore, stop-ping from time to time to nip the grasses and seeds on the bank, or to secure some bit of animal food on the muddy bottom of the water. Snails and plantains are favorite morsels. When lily pads or other flat leaved plants appear on its path, the gallinule runs lightly over them, upheld partly by its long toes and partly by its fluttering wings. Dr. Abbott tells of seeing a gallinule in his favorite New Jersey creek that went through the unusual (?) performance of throwing back its head until the occiput rested on its shoulders, and at the same moment the wings were lifted lightly as if the bird intended to fly.

But flying is an art this terrestrial wader practices rarely. It depends sometimes upon swimming and diving, but almost always on running, to escape danger, many men of science claiming that a large part of its migrating also is done a-foot. As the family parties escape under cover of darkness, and steal away as silently as the Arabs, who knows positively how they travel ? A gallinule, equally with a barnyard chicken, appears ridiculous and out of its element in the air as it labors along a few paces, dragging its legs after it, and drops awkwardly to the ground.

The similarity to a chicken does not end with flight. In appearance, as in habits, and particularly in voice, the water hens and hens of the poultry yard have much in common. A single pair in a swamp keep up clatter enough for a yard full of fowls, ” now loud and terror stricken like a hen whose head is just going to be cut off,” as a friend of Bradford Torrey’s expressed it; “then soft and full of content, as if the aforesaid hen had laid an egg ten minutes before and were still felicitating herself upon the “achievement.” When both the Florida and the purple gallinules build their nests, they very often simply bend down the tops of grasses to form a platform, then place a rude, grassy cradle on it; or the nest may be moored to the stems of the rushes, or to a bush, where the incoming tide raises it, but can-not loosen its anchors. But usually drier sites are chosen.

The Purple Gallinule (Ionornis martinica), a common bird in the southern states, nests so far north as southern Illinois and Carolina, and occasionally strays northward to New England and Wisconsin. In the Gulf states it is usually found in the same marsh with the Florida gallinule, eating the same food, nesting in the same manner, cackling like a chicken, in fact sharing nearly all its cousin’s habits, its gorgeous plumage alone giving it distinction.