Moor-hen - Encyclopedia




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MOOR-HEN, 1 the name by which a bird, often called waterhen and sometimes gallinule, is most commonly known in England. An earlier name was moat-hen, which was appropriate in the days when a moat was the ordinary adjunct of most considerable houses in the country. It is the Gallinula chloropus of ornithologists, about the size of a small bantam-hen, but with the body much compressed (as is usual with members of the family Rallidae, to which it belongs), its plumage above is of a deep olive-brown, so dark as to appear black at a short distance, and beneath iron-grey, relieved by some white stripes on the flanks, with the lower tail-coverts of pure white - these last being very conspicuous as the bird swims. A scarlet frontlet, especially bright in the spring of the year, and a red garter on the tibia render it very showy. Though often frequenting the neighbourhood of man, the moor-hen seems unable to overcome the inherent stealthy habits of the Rallidae, and hastens to hide itself on the least alarm; but under exceptional circumstances it may be induced to feed, yet always suspiciously, with tame ducks and poultry. It appears to take wing with difficulty, and may be often caught by an active dog; but, in reality, it is capable of sustained flight, its longer excursions being chiefly performed by night, when the peculiar call-note it utters is frequently heard as the bird, itself invisible in the darkness, passes overhead. The nest is a mass of flags, reeds, or other aquatic plants, often arranged with much neatness, almost always near the water's edge, where a clump of rushes is generally chosen; but should a mill-dam, sluice-gate, or boat-house afford a favourable site, advantage will be taken of it, and not unfrequently the bough of a tree at some height from the ground will furnish the place for a cradle. The eggs, from seven to eleven in number, resemble those of the coot but are smaller, lighter, and brighter in colour, with spots or blotches of reddish-brown. The common moor-hen is extensively spread throughout the Old World, being found also at the Cape of Good Hope, in India and in Japan. In America it is represented by a very closely allied form, G. galeata, so called from its rather larger frontal helm, and in Australia by another, G. tenebrosa, which generally wants the white flank-markings. Both closely resemble G. chloropus in general habits, as does also the G. pyrrhorrhoa of Madagascar, which has the lower tail-coverts buff instead of white. Celebes and Amboyna possess a smaller cognate species, G. haematopus, with red legs; tropical Africa has the smallest of all, G. angulata. One of the most remarkable varieties is the G. nesiotis of Tristan da Cunha, 2 which has wholly lost the power of flight. 3 Among other forms are the common Gallinula (Erythra) phoenicura, and Gallicrex cristata of India, as well as the South American species classed in the genus Porphyriops, and the remarkable Australian genus Tribonyx contains three species, 4 which seem to be more terrestrial than aquatic in their haunts and habits.

Allied to all these is the genus Porphyrio, including the bird so named by classical writers, and perhaps a dozen other species often called sultanas and purple water-hens, for they all have a plumage of deep blue - some becoming violet, green, or black in parts, but preserving the white lower tail-coverts, so generally characteristic of the group; and their beauty is enhanced by their scarlet bill and legs. Two, P. alleni of the Ethiopian region and the South American P. parva, are of small size.

1 Not to be confounded with "Moor-cock" or "Moor-fowl," names formerly in general use for the red grouse.

2 Proc. Zool. Soc. (1861), p. 260, pl. xxx.

3 A somewhat intermediate form seems to be presented by the moor-hen of the island of St Denis, to the north of Madagascar (Proc. Zool. Soc., 1867, p. 1036).

4 Ann. Nat. History, 3rd series, xx. 123.

Of the larger species, P. caeruleus is the "Porphyrio" of the ancients, and inhabits certain localities on both sides of the Mediterranean, while the rest are widely dispersed within the tropics, and even beyond them, as in Australia and New Zealand. But this last country has produced a more exaggerated form, Notornis, which has an interesting and perhaps unique history. First described from a fossil skull by Sir R. Owen,' and then thought to be extinct, an example was soon after taken alive,' the skin of which (with that of another procured like the first by Walter Mantell) may be seen in the British Museum. Other fossil remains were from time to time noted by Sir R. Owen 7; but it began to be feared that the bird had ceased to exist, 8 until a third example was taken about the year 1879, the skin and most of the bones of which, after undergoing examination in New Zealand by Sir W. Buller and T. J. Parker, 9 found their way to the museum of Dresden, where A. B. Meyer discovered the recent remains to be specifically distinct from the fossil, and while keeping for the latter the name N. mantelli gives the former that of N. hochstetteri. What seems to have been a third species of Notornis formerly inhabited Lord Howe's Island, but is now extinct. Whether the genus Aptornis, of which Owen described the remains from New Zealand, was most nearly allied to Notornis and Porphyrio cannot here be decided. T. J. Parker considers it a "development by degeneration of an ocydromine type." (See OCYDROME.) (A. N.)

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