Common gallinule uncommonly delightful in any landscape

The common gallinule comes to the Chesapeake region every spring. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The bald eagles were everywhere we looked, soaring through the summer sky and perching on top of a half-dozen loblolly pines. There were mature adults and several younger birds, and all of it was exhilarating.

My wife, Pat, had entered the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge minutes earlier. Just past the Marsh Edge Trail, we drove down Observation Access Road to the overlook. After a few minutes to unload my scooter, we headed up the ramp to put ourselves in the center of the eagles.

Barn swallows swirled acrobatically, and red-winged blackbirds complained loudly about our presence. The regal eagles ignored us. Once again, this extraordinary place was working its magic. We were totally enthralled.

Pat and I had counted 11 bald eagles of various ages when a piercing squawk from the marsh below us finally diverted our attention. The bird squawked again and again and seemed to be under the ramp, but we couldn’t see it immediately. It was hidden among the marsh grasses.

Pat inched quietly down the ramp to get a better look. She stopped, turned to me with a big smile and said, “Common gallinule!”

The unlikely looking bird peeked out from the grasses a second later, and I could see it, too.

The common gallinule (Gallinula galeata) is a rail that looks like a big black chicken with ridiculously long toes and a red face plate. The plate blends seamlessly into its bill, which ends in a bright yellow tip. 

This was the first gallinule we’d seen during our many trips to Blackwater, located just south of Cambridge, MD. It squawked a few more times to make sure we noted its presence before silently disappearing again into the tall grass.

Gallinules are slightly smaller than American coots, which they superficially resemble. Both are big, roundish dark birds that frequent lakes, ponds, marshes and the like. The gallinule is typically close to shore, moving between wetland vegetation and small breaks of open water. The coot favors broader expanses of open water.

At first glance, the gallinule’s body appears all dark gray except for a white side stripe and white feathers on either side of the tail (technically, the “outer tail coverts”). Upon closer inspection, the shoulders, wings and rump are dark brown, not gray.

The bird has rather thick, greenish-yellow legs leading into those comically large toes. The feet are an adaptation to help the bird walk on mudflats and atop vegetative mats. The gallinule eats plants and the macroinvertebrates in the surrounding marsh.

Overall, it’s a foot long and weighs about 13 ounces. The sexes are similar, although females tend to be smaller.

Even though it was our first sighting of the gallinule in Blackwater, the bird is fairly common in the Eastern United States and some areas in the West.

Known as a short-distance migrant, the common gallinule comes into the Chesapeake every spring. It can’t be found in the mountains, but areas with significant stands of emergent grasses along various waterways might be home to these birds. The Delmarva Peninsula and the Upper Susquehanna watershed in Pennsylvania and into New York are the most common

sites in the Chesapeake region to host these birds.

These gallinules are widespread in the Americas. Permanent populations can be found in Florida and Louisiana, the Caribbean, Central America and South America down into Chile. And that’s not all. The common gallinule is also found in Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. There is even an endemic subpopulation in Hawaii.

Folklore in Hawaii tells the story of the gallinule bringing fire to humans for the first time. According to lore, the scarlet face plate is the permanent scar resulting from that first fire.

The common gallinule was given that name in 1957 by the American Ornithological Union, the official authority on species’ names in the United States. The bird closely resembles the common moorhen of Europe, and in 1983, the organization changed the name to coincide with its European counterpart: common moorhen.

By 2011, evidence was mounting that the decision to share its name with the European bird was a bad idea. Key differences in morphology, behavior and mitochondrial DNA were enough to split them back into two species. And so, the bird’s official name reverted to common gallinule. Much confusion in birders’ life lists ensued.

There is no confusing the common gallinule in the field, however.

Nothing else looks quite like it in the United States. Only its sister species, the purple gallinule, has that remarkable red face plate. But as its name suggests, the related bird is purple, not gray.

Birding in Blackwater is always a joy. As the seasons change, the cast of avian characters changes, too. Equally impressive is the refuge’s stunning landscape. Marsh grasses, interspersed with stands of stately loblolly pines and tidal waters, stretch out in subtle hues that change with the time of day as well as the seasons.

That evening, I added another name to my list of Blackwater birds. Once again, the marshes had surprised and delighted me with their endless variety and beauty. The common gallinule, that unlikely looking bird, gave me one more reason to love this special place.

Mike Burke, a Bay Journal columnist, is an amateur naturalist based in Maryland, having retired from a career that toggled between Capitol Hill and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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