The Moorhen is one of the most distinctive waterbirds to be seen in Europe, commonly encountered on ornamental lakes, village ponds, rivers and garden streams throughout northern Europe.
Both sexes share the same plumage and soft-part characters. The head and underparts are a dark greyish-blue, in some lights appearing black or a glossy deep navy-blue. The upperparts are a deep brown, with the short wings tipped black. Along the flank is an obvious white line, which appears very bold against the dark wing and body feathers. The ‘rear-end’ of the Moorhen is blackish except for a gleaming white undertail. The frontal shield and bill (except for a yellow tip) are cherryred, as is the eye. The juvenile Moorhen has a pinkish bill, often with a greenish frontal shield.
As these are highly territorial birds, Moorhen fights are commonplace, whatever the season. Bodies will tilt backward into the water, wings will flop and feet will become jousting weapons . . . and the noise Explosive ‘gurgling’ ‘kurr-ucks’, ‘kek’s and ‘kikik’s litter the air as birds vent their anger. Conflicts can last many minutes and injuries, even fatalities, are not unknown.
On land, where they look a little ungainly and timid, the yellowy-green legs and large feet are obvious. Just above the knee a small red ‘thigh’ patch is often visible.
In flight, Moorhens present a rather awkward spectacle. Their short wings and bulky body mean that flight is difficult and they appear very weak on the wing. Their long legs trail well beyond the tail tip.
Adult Moorhens are good parents, taking great care of their youngsters. Throughout the breeding season, at the edge of ponds, rivers and reedbeds, adult birds can be seen gently passing food to their bald-headed fluffy black chicks.
Young Moorhens show none of the adults’ color. The head is dark brown with a greyish-brown wash on the face. The chin and throat are white. The upperparts are brown.
Looking much more at home on the water, the Moorhen moves with jerky actions and a constantly flicking tail, the white and black of which are visible from considerable range. Often they dwell to pick at the water surface, feeding on weeds, insects or seeds.