The Gallinules and Coots, as already pointed out, are sometimes referred to separate subfamilies, and again to a single subfamily. Collectively they differ from the Rails in having a frontal process or shield at the base of the upper mandible, while among themselves they differ regarding the toes, these being without lateral lobes in the Gallinules and with them in the Coots. Both groups enjoy a wide geographic distribution, the former being, however, most numerous in genera and species.
The common or so-called Florida Gallinule (Gallinula galeata) may be taken as typical of the Gallinules. It is found throughout the whole of tropical and temperate America, ranging as far north as Canada and south to Brazil and Chile. It is a small bird, only twelve or thirteen inches in length, dark bluish slate-color above and whitish below, the back and scapulars marked with olive-brown, and the flanks sparingly white-streaked. The frontal shield and bill are bright red in life, the latter tipped with yellowish, while the legs are greenish with the upper parts of the tibia scarlet. They frequent especially reedy and bushy marshes along the shores of ponds and lakes, and among the tangled vegetation of which they make their way with ease and grace. They are exceedingly timid and conceal themselves among the rank vegetation on the slightest indication of danger. When surprised they run nimbly and when hard pressed take to the water, where they swim and dive well, and can rarely be forced to take wing, and when they do the flight is short, as, with dangling legs, they drop at the first opportunity. Mr. William Brewster has given an entertaining account of the habits of a pair on which he made extensive observations near Cambridge, Massachusetts. Of the male he says: “His manner of swimming and of feeding from the surface of the water was very like that of a Coot. He sat high and accompanied the strokes of the feet with a forward-and-backward nodding motion of the head and neck, accentuated at times as he reached out to seize some tempting morsel. On land he walked like a Rail, threading his way deftly among the stems of the bushes and tall rushes, stepping daintily, lifting and putting his feet down slowly, and almost incessantly picking up his tail with a quick, nervous motion which caused the under coverts to flash like the sudden flirt of a handkerchief. As he picked his food from the vegetation at his feet, the head and neck were shot forward and downward at intervals of about a second, with a peculiarly vivid, eager motion. His manner of walking and feeding also suggested that of the Guinea-hen, the body being carried low and in a crouching attitude, while the movements of the head partook of that furtive swiftness which is so characteristic of this barnyard fowl.” These Gallinules are very noisy birds, particularly during the nesting season, and have a great variety of calls, one of the most common being a loud, explosive chuck. All the notes, however, are “loud, harsh, and discordant, and nearly all curiously hen-like.” The nest is a rather unsubstantial structure of reeds and grasses, usually raised a few inches above the shallow water surrounding it, and but slightly hollowed. The eggs are from eight to thirteen in number, huffy white spotted and speckled with brownish.