The Dusky Moorhen is October's bird of the month.
The Dusky Moorhen is a dark waterbird of the Rail family, often confused with other Rail cousins it shares the ponds with.
It is slatey dark-grey to black, with white undertail feathers and a brownish wash across the back. It has orange to red legs and toes with yellow edges along toed feet.
The Dusky Moorhen can get confused with other waterbirds. You can tell the difference between the Australasian Swamphen and Moorhen by the colour of their beaks. The Swamphen has a red forehead shield and beak; the Moorhen has a yellow tip on its beak. The Swamphen is also larger, with longer legs and a rich, dark blue breast. Likewise, the Eurasian Coot is another black waterbird of similar size, with a white beak and shield, and lacks the white rump feathers of the Dusky Moorhen.
While newly hatched Moorhen chicks are fluffy black with red skin on the head, a red bill with a broad yellow tip, and black down on the head and neck, juvenile Moorhens are dull brown, with a darker bill and green legs, lacking the colourful features of an adult.
Moorhen species are found around the world. The Dusky Moorhen ranges from eastern Indonesia, through New Guinea and into Australia. In Australia the population tends to cover the eastern half of the continent south of Cooktown, with an isolated population in south-western Western Australia. The arid interior provides little in the way of the wetland habitat suitable.
Moorhens are found in swamps, rivers, lakes and artificial ponds, requiring open water with areas of reeds, rushes and waterlilies.
Dusky Moorhens are omnivorous, feeding on algae, water weeds, grasses and seeds as well as insects, snails and small fish. They also have an unfortunate reputation for feeding on carrion and the droppings of other birds.
They can feed while swimming, by upending their white undertail feathers that stick up from the water. They do not dive for food like the Eurasian Coot. They also patrol the edges of islands and ponds, along mudflats, across waterlilies, or away from the water into lawns and grasslands. They come together in small numbers when being hand fed, but do not form the larger feeding flocks seen with the Eurasian Coot.
The Dusky Moorhen breeding season extends from late winter to early the following autumn. They form breeding groups of two to seven birds and are fiercely territorial when breeding. They communally construct a nest of reeds, grass, and water weeds, either in reed beds over water, or as a floating platform in shallows near the water’s edge. Breeding females in the group each lay five to eight eggs in the one nest over a period of days, and all members of the group share incubation and the raising of hatchlings.
Newly hatched chicks are taken to a separate nursery nest constructed in deeper water where they are brooded for a few days before accompanying an adult on foraging trips. The chicks continue to sleep and roost at the nursery for about four weeks as they learn the necessary skills to seek food. At about nine weeks the young Moorhens become independent. Only a small percentage make it through to this stage.
In the Park:
Dusky Moorhens are found on ponds throughout the Parklands. When swimming at a distance, watch for the white feathers near the rump to separate them from the Eurasian Coot. The Australasian Swamphen is not often found swimming, and on land is more long-legged and upright than the Moorhen. While these Rails all appear quite tame at times and approach visitors to be fed, they are amply supplied with a varied and nourishing diet in the healthy habitats provided by the parklands.
Photo credit: Tony Spira
This information was curated by a team of passionate Centennial Parklands volunteers and with the assistance of Volunteer Program and Asset staff. Find out more about our volunteer programs here.