Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata): Barry Kent MacKay

This species is about the size of a small chicken, approximately 300 to 450 grams (11 to 16i oz). It has gone through three “official” name changes in my lifetime. It was called the Florida Gallinule when I was a kid. That made no sense as it has a huge range that included most of temperate eastern North America, the American southwest, Mexico and Central America, the West Indies and much of tropical and temperate South America, including the Galapagos. But then the name was changed to Common Moorhen, scientists having decided it was the same species as the widely distributed and nearly identical Eurasian species of that name. It didn’t inhabit moors and was not a hen, unless you apply the broader meaning of the word, meaning any female bird, in which case only about half the population would be hens. Ah, but then it was decided that the earlier designation was correct, it is a species distinct from the Eurasian birds, and in 2011 the “official” name was changed to the current Common Gallinule. And in fact, the “moor” in “moorhen” derives from an archaic use of the word for “marsh” or “wetland”, which fairly does describe the habitat (but I had no idea of that back in the day).

It is a member of the rail and coot family, Rallidae, characterized by long toes that help them to broadly distribute their weight on lily pads and other floating marsh vegetation, as I have shown the adult doing in this oil painting. But I have shown the immature bird in the water as they are excellent swimmers, even in the absence of either lobes on their toes as coots have, or the kind of webbing found in ducks, geese and other birds who frequently swim. In some parts of their range, such as Florida, they seem much more accustomed to people than here in Ontario, where they are quite shy. But they are noisy, and once you learn to recognize their distinctive, loud voice you realize they inhabit most large cattail marshes, heard far more often than seen. 

Although they are often mistaken for ducks, they are not related, and have softer, more loosely webbed feathering, and lack the flattened beak more or less characteristic of ducks. The beak structure extends up the forehead as a “frontal shield”, similar to that of coots, but, in the adult, bright red.

This painting is approximately life-size, and is in oils on Russian birch, 20 X 16 inches.

Barry Kent MacKay

Bird Artist, Illustrator

Studio: (905) 472 9731

31 Colonel Butler Drive

Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada

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