Moorhen (common) Gallinula chloropus

The moorhen is a blackish/grey bird (about the size of a crow) with a very distinctive red bill which has a yellow tip. The bright red beak extends upward between its eyes to create a shield. It has a white strip along the rear edge of each wing and often white patches towards its rear. It breeds on and around fresh water bodies (rivers, lakes, canals and ponds) and if seen out of water, is easily distinguished by its bright yellow/green legs with long toes.


The moorhen may be heard before it is seen, with a typical bubbling or gargling call ‘Kyorrl’, or a fast ‘Kreck-kreck-kreck’ which may be repeated several times and reveal its presence.

Moorhens are better swimmers and walkers than they are fliers. It walks with a high-stepping gait and pecks at the ground like a chicken picking up insects, berries, grass, snails and worms. It is a social bird and often found in small flocks outside of the mating season.

When courting, the male moorhen presents water weeds to the female and fans out his tail. The males and the female form a monogamous pair and may build several nests in their territory. The chicks are precocial and leave the nest and feed themselves within a few days of birth. The young may use the ‘extra’ nests to sleep in at night.


  • Length: 32-35cm
  • Wingspan: 50-55cm
  • Weight: 250-400g
  • Average lifespan: 1-3 years


Classified in the UK as Green under the Birds of Conservation Concern 4: the Red List for Birds (2015); protected by The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Research suggests that in Scotland, breeding numbers are declining at some sites and its range has contracted, possibly due to mink and otter predation and loss of habitats.


The moorhen is a widespread resident breeder in Scotland, with highest densities in the south and east. It is absent in upland areas and most of the north-west, but there are a few small populations on Shetland and the Outer Hebrides. Migrants from north-western Europe augment the resident population in the autumn, with a few recorded sightings occurring on the Northern Isles.

When to see

January to December


  • Moorhens are very aggressive and territorial during the mating season. In addition, adults often show aggression towards the chicks. A study revealed that in 84% of broods observed, every chick was attacked at least once. The apparent effect of parental aggression is to reduce demands by chicks for feedings. Aggression appears to reduce sibling competition and to encourage chick independence.
  • The scientific name of the common moorhen – Gallinula chloropus, comes from the Latin word Gallinula, meaning a small chicken or hen, and the Greek word chloropus, which means green or yellow (khloros) foot (pous).

Common name

Moorhen (common)

Species name

Gallinula chloropus

IUCN Red List status

UK Green List Species under the Birds of Conservation Concern 4

When to see in Scotland

January to December

Where to see in Scotland

Largest populations can be found south and east of the Highlands, mostly in the lowlands of eastern Scotland, (Fife, Angus and Dundee) such as the Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve at Montrose Basin, and Cambus Pools, as well as southern (Borders, Lothian, and Ayrshire) and central (Clyde, Perth and Kinross) Scotland.

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