Common Gallinule

Formerly known as Common Moorhens, the Common Gallinule is a versatile bird species that live throughout the marshes of North and South America. Their extreme adaptability has made them successful in a variety of wetlands, as they swim like a duck and walk over floating vegetation with their long toes as well. These birds have bold marks with vivid plumages but are rather shy and typically remain hidden within the swampy vegetation of their natural habitats.

About Common Gallinules

They are related to American Coots in multiple ecological and behavioral aspects and can also be observed to share some traits with Purple Gallinules. These birds have been a fairly well-studied species due to their extensive lineage that can not only be traced back to the Moorhens of the Old World but also to the subspecies that are endemic to islands like Hawaii. In Hawaiian folklore, there is a popular story that says that Common Gallinules brought fire to humankind and its forehead was scorched in the process, resulting in the red patch visible today.

Although these birds are relatively tolerant of urban and agricultural areas, factors like pollution and depleting wetlands have led to the decline of their populations. However, in the marshy wetlands that continue to exist in North and South America, these birds can be spotted by attentive birders that take care to not cause any disturbance while they are in their vicinity.

● Common Gallinule Photos, Color Pattern, Song
● Common Gallinule Size, Eating Behavior, Habitat
● Common Gallinule Range and Migration, Nesting


Common Gallinule Color Pattern

Common Gallinules have uniquely colored plumages that make them stand out. They are not sexually dimorphic in appearance. Adults of both sexes resemble each other in plumages, although males are often larger and heavier than females. Adults are typically charcoal black overall, paling to dark grey on their upper back, sides, and flanks. The
feathers on the outermost edge of their wings are white while their wings are darker charcoal to brown shade. Their rump is brownish and there is a prominent white stripe that is visible along their sides. The white stripe further highlights the white outer tail feathers of the otherwise black tail. Their legs are yellowish-green with red marks at the very top. A large red shield tipped with yellow is visible on their foreheads and bills, a feature that becomes duller
during nonbreeding seasons. Their underparts also become paler following breeding seasons.

Juveniles are brownish-grey overall and are much duller as compared to adults. They have paler underparts that are pale to whitish on their bellies and also show a buffy-white supraloral line. They have the white stripe and white under-tail coverts that are present in adults. However, they lack the distinct red shield until they fully molt. Their bill and frontal shield are dull greenish-brown and their legs are a dull olive-grey.

Description and Identification

Their calls sound like a strange clucking and whinnying coming from the dense vegetation. Patient observers catch a glimpse of them if they focus on the edge of vegetation. They are shy birds that may still peek in and out of vegetation, walking on top of the floating plant matter, or swimming along the edge. As few other species are capable of walking on floating vegetation, this is an important cue that birders cannot miss. Once spotted, their bright red shields given them away as one of their most distinctive traits. Their long yellowish toes that almost seem disproportionately large are also another visual cue that aids in identifying them accurately. In many cases, you might observe these birds alongside American Coots in open water as they forage for food.

Common Gallinule Song

You can hear these swamp birds before you see them. They have a wide variety of vocal sounds, including loud, harsh calls that travel through the dense wetlands. The quality of the calls is slightly metallic, which may seem very loud and sudden. Adults are capable of a complex variety of sounds that grade into one another in a multitude of different combinations but can be roughly put into four types of calls “cackle, squawk, yelp, and cluck”.

Their cackle consists of a series of harsh notes with the consecutive notes falling in pitch as the call goes on. It sounds like a “ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-kree-kree-kree-kree-kree”. The squawk call is an explosive, loud, and raspy “kr-a-a-a” on an even pitch. This call almost resembles a bullfrog but at a higher octave. The yelp is a sharp, high-pitch note that sounds like a pip. While a cluck is a softer, lower note that can either be sung in singles or triples like “ptuk-ptuk-ptuk” or “tot-tot-tot”. They also have a whine that sounds like “we-e-e-e-ing”. Juveniles are incapable of adult-like calls until they’re at least six weeks old. The main call is a “peep-peep” and a squeaky “weeah”.

Common Gallinule Size

Common Gallinules are medium-size birds that are around 12.6–13.8 inches long, making them around the same size as a Crow. They have an approximate wingspan of 21.3–24.4 inches and weigh around 10.9–16.1 ounces. Although males are typically heavier than females, the difference between their weights is less than 3.5 ounces. These marsh birds have long legs and toes that contrast with their rather small heads supported by their thin necks. Their bills are small and thin, and they often hold their wings up in such a way that the wingtips stick up on the back. These birds are larger than Soras but smaller than Mallards.

Common Gallinule Behavior

Common Gallinules can be seen moving in their characteristic way of walking on aquatic vegetation or on soft and firm soil while they slowly flick their tails up and reveal their undertail coverts. They stride through water and pump their heads forward as their tails are held horizontally with their wings held up over the back. When foraging while walking, they carry their bodies low in a crouching manner by lifting and putting their feet down slowly and gently. They may also run across the water surface while flapping their wings to repel any intruders in their territories. Although less common, they also climb in vegetation, dive, and fly on occasion. When they do fly, their flight is done with some difficulty. During migration season, they fly relatively swiftly and have their head and feet extended.

During the breeding seasons, they are fiercely territorial and generally only associate with their own family group. Aggression towards other males might begin with patrolling each other, before escalating to charging and attacking them. They may also slap each other with their feet while challenging their opponents. However, during the winters they amicably forage with American Coots and some duck species in their marshy areas.

These birds are capable of forming long-lasting pairs, but on occasion, males have been observed to mate with more than one female. Females may also occasionally share a mate and a nest with their daughters in order to cooperatively raise the offspring. Young birds that do not have a mate of their may also remain in the nests in order to help with their parent’s brood and to feed the immature nestlings.

Common Gallinule Diet

Common Gallinules are mainly omnivorous, adding to their already versatile characteristics. They use freshwater and brackish marshes, ponds, and lakes to forage through a mix of aquatic and terrestrial vegetation for leaves, stems, seeds of various aquatic plants, and also fruits and berries of plants on solid land. Common plant material that they consume includes picking sedge, grass, pondweed, duckweed, and flower seeds from the surface of the water or below the surface. They also consume a variety of insects by flipping over leaves with their feet in order to find them. Their animal prey includes spiders, earthworms, snails and other mollusks, and tadpoles as well. On occasion, they may also scavenge through carrion and eat eggs of other birds.

Common Gallinule Habitat

These birds frequent fresh marshes and reedy ponds, favoring still or slow-moving waters. While they utilize both freshwater and brackish wetlands, they seem to prefer fresh marshes with some open water, some open ground, and some dense cover along the margins. Sometimes you may even find them on more open ponds that have only a small
amount of marsh cover. In other words, they use wetlands with a mix of submerged, floating, and emergent aquatic vegetation that contains open water throughout the year. They may also inhabit manmade habitats like artificial aquaculture ponds, rice fields, sewage lagoons, and urban stormwater retention ponds.

Range and Migration

Common Gallinules have a vast range throughout North and South America. In North America, they live throughout eastern and extreme south-western the United States, and in almost all of Mexico and the Caribbean, and portions of Central America. Their South American populations are mainly throughout the northern-most and central portion of the continent, central and southern Brazil, and the north-eastern coast along the Pacific Ocean. Populations in the northern regions of their range breed in areas where waters freeze during the winters. As a result, those populations are short to medium-distant migrants as they head towards areas with more temperate climates during the winters. In recent years, they increasingly expand their range northwards and now breed as north as Pennsylvania. The remainder of their range hosts populations that are permanent residents of their habitat and do not migrate.

Common Gallinule Lifecycle

Breeding seasons involve the courtship rituals of males and females, with males chasing females on land. Once the chasing ceases, both stop and bow deeply while preening each other’s feathers. Other displays include the lowering of the head and raising the tail, sometimes exposing their white under tail coverts. After mating, females may have one to
two broods in a season, with each brood consisting of 5–13 eggs that are a buff color and have brown spots. Both members of the pair incubate the eggs for 19–22 days. After the eggs hatch, the chicks are capable of sight and swimming almost instantly. They are fed by both parents and sometimes by their older siblings from earlier broods until they gradually learn to feed themselves. Most birds are fully capable of sourcing their own food after 3 weeks but may still be fed past 6 weeks. The young ones become capable of flight after 40–50 days.


These birds nest in marshes, lakes, and ponds with emergent vegetation. They typically build nests on top of thick mats of aquatic plants that are near the water’s edge but sometimes may nest in shrubs or trees at low elevations. Both members of a pair construct the nest. It commences as the males and females create a wide bowl made of grasses and sedges. While males tend to collect most of the nesting material, females arrange and anchor it to the emergent vegetation near the water’s edge. The resulting nests are typically around 10–12 inches wide.

Anatomy of a Common Gallinule

Common Gallinules are birds belonging to the Rallidae family and are a relative medium size for these wetland birds. They have small heads with thin necks along with a small, thin bill. Their have long legs with long toes. They have a vivid red shield with yellow tips on their foreheads.

Final Thoughts

These demure birds are currently widespread throughout the Americas but face considerable amounts of threats by numerous factors. Some of these factors include habitat loss due to the depletion and pollution of wetlands throughout the Americas, as well as hunting. These birds are game birds and continue to be hunted for their unique appearances. Common Gallinule is the legal game bird in a few states across the United States. This leads to ambiguity regarding their conservation status, despite being officially categorized under Least Concern.

While these birds might be trickier to spot than many other species, finding them in their natural habitat is an incredibly rewarding experience. Watch out for a clucking sound the next time you are at a marsh around their range and keep your eye out for a flash of red along the edges of the floating vegetation, and you may very well catch a glimpse of this charismatic bird.


Bird Watching Academy & Camp Subscription Boxes

At the Bird Watching Academy & Camp we help kids, youth, and adults get excited and involved in bird watching. We have several monthly subscription boxes that you can subscribe to. Our monthly subscription boxes help kids, youth, and adults learn about birds, bird watching, and bird conservation.

Bird Watching Binoculars for IdentifyingCommon Gallinules

The most common types of bird watching binoculars for viewing Common Gallinules are 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. Bird Watching Academy & Camp sells really nice 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. You can view and purchase them here.

Common Gallinule Stickers

Stickers are a great way for you to display your love for bird watching and the Common Gallinule. We sell a monthly subscription sticker pack. The sticker packs have 12 bird stickers. These sticker packs will help your kids learn new birds every month.

Bird Feeders ForCommon Gallinules

There are many types of bird feeders. Bird feeders are a great addition to your backyard. Bird feeders will increase the chances of attracting birds drastically. Both kids and adults will have a great time watching birds eat at these bird feeders. There are a wide variety of bird feeders on the market and it is important to find the best fit for you and your backyard.

Bird Houses ForCommon Gallinules

There are many types of bird houses. Building a bird house is always fun but can be frustrating. Getting a bird house for kids to watch birds grow is always fun. If you spend a little extra money on bird houses, it will be well worth every penny and they’ll look great.

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