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Dusky moorhen

Dusky moorhen

What are dusky moorhens?

Dusky moorhens are medium-sized water birds.  They are greyish black in colour with a white patch under the tail. They have red beaks and a red shield that sits between the eyes. The beak has a yellow tip. The scientific name for dusky moorhens is Gallinula tenebrosa. In Latin, Tenebrosa means ‘dark’. 

Dusky moorhens are often confused with the purple swamphens. Despite their name, purple swamphens are shades of blue, green and purple and are slightly larger than dusky moorhens.

What do dusky moorhens look like?

Male and female dusky moorhens are similar in appearance but males have a larger face shield.

Where do dusky moorhens live?

Dusky moorhens live in wetland habitats such as swamps, marshes, lakes, ponds, rivers and in parks where reeds, rushes and water lilies grow. They can be found in south west Australia and in larger numbers in eastern Australia. Dusky moorhens are a common sight in parklands. They live in pairs or small groups.

What do dusky moorhens eat?

Dusky moorhens are omnivores. Their diet includes water plants and grasses, insects, little fish, molluscs such as snails, seeds and berry fruits. They feed in the water and on land. They are known to eat dead animals and bird droppings too!

What structural adaptations do dusky moorhens have?

Dusky moorhens have well adapted legs and feet for slippery, muddy river banks and for swimming and wading in wetlands environments. Their long toes are also able to grasp and carry food to the beak. Dusky moorhens can swim but spend more time floating or walking on vegetation on the water’s surface. 

What behavioural adaptations do dusky moorhens have?

Dusky moorhens use the long reeds and wetland grasses to hide in. They are less shy in parkland areas having adapted to the presence of humans. However they will aggressively defend their patch against intruders and groups of birds including other dusky moorhens. 

Instead of diving, dusky moorhens upend (tip upside down) to eat vegetation and invertebrates under the water’s surface. 

While feeding on the ground, they flick their tails up and down. The patch of white underneath the tail is flashed repeatedly. The reason for the tail flicking is not widely understood. It could be to warn off predators, to attract mates or to demonstrate they are alert to danger.

How do dusky moorhens reproduce and what is their life cycle?

Dusky moorhens breed from August to January in the south of Australia, and from January to June in the north. When it is time to breed, dusky moorhens will form a group of two to seven birds to help build the nest, to defend it, to incubate (sit on) the eggs and to feed the chicks. Two or more females lay their eggs in one nest. Each female will lay six to ten eggs.

They build a bulky nest using water plants such as reeds and rushes (long grasses). Nests are built at the water’s edge amongst the reeds or on floating platforms in the water. 

Chicks are black and fluffy with a red beak. Juveniles (young adults) then turn a dullish grey and their beaks become black. The red beak and shield appear as they get older. Dusky moorhens live for approximately 3 years.

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