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Common Gallinule
Gallinula galeata

The Common Gallinule is the size of a duck and swims like a duck, but is in fact, a rail. It is readily distinguished from all ducks by the blunt red and yellow bill and red forehead shield. It breeds in fresh and brackish water marshes in scattered locations across eastern and southwestern North America, and southward to Chile. It is also found from northern Europe to southern Africa, and across Asia to the Pacific. In North America, it winters from coastal North Carolina to Mexico, and in scattered locations in the southwestern United States. The Common Gallinule is rare but regular in Tennessee during migration and during the breeding season, and is normally present in the state from late April to late September.

Description: Superficially, the Common Gallinule looks like a duck, but has a triangular shaped bill. This bill is red and yellow, and has a red shield on the forehead from February-September, when it is most likely to be found in Tennessee. The body is dark with a horizontal white stripe on the side, and white undertail coverts with a dark center stripe. The male and female look the same. Juvenile birds (July to February) are paler brown with the horizontal white line on the body, a whitish throat, and dusky bill and legs.
Length: 14"
Wingspan: 21"
Weight: 11 oz

Similar Species:

  • The adult Purple Gallinule, very rare in Tennessee, has a blue body with no horizontal white stripe, green wings, and a pale blue forehead. Juvenile Purple Gallinules have a tawny neck and head, mostly white underparts, and greenish wings.
  • American Coot has a white bill, unmarked flanks, and mostly dark undertail coverts.

Habitat: Freshwater or brackish marshes with tall emergent vegetation and areas of open water, also ponds, canals, and rice fields.

Diet: Seeds of grasses and sedges, and some snails.

Nesting and reproduction: Like some other rail species, Common Gallinules will build "dummy" nests used during courtship and for brooding young after they leave the nest.

Clutch Size: 4 to 17 eggs, with an average about 9.

Incubation: Both parents incubate the eggs for about 3 weeks.

Fledging: Young leave the nest within 1 or 2 days of hatching, and are frequently brooded in a specially built nest, near the original nest. Both adults care for the young until 21 to 25 days old.

Nest: Both adults build the platform nest of dead vegetation, and it is usually placed low in emergent aquatic vegetation near open water.

Status in Tennessee: The Common Gallinule is a rare migrant and summer resident, arriving in late April and most departing by late September. There are nest records from East, Middle, and West Tennessee. Though little is known about population trends, it is considered a game species in the state, but is likely seldom taken by hunters. Ironically, it is also listed as In Need of Management by the State of Tennessee.

Dynamic map of Common Gallinule eBird observations in Tennessee

Fun Facts:

  • The Common Gallinule was once called the common gallinule. The word gallinule comes from the Latin "gallina," meaning small hen.
  • The Common Gallinule has exceptionally long toes allowing it to walk on soft mud and floating vegetation. Although the toes have no lobes or webbing, the moorhen is an excellent swimmer.
  • Newly hatched chicks have tiny spurs on their wings that help them climb in vegetation, get into the nest or cling to submerged vegetation when swimming underwater.
  • Common and scientific name was changed from Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) in July 2011 separating it from the European gallinule.

Obsolete English Names: common moorhen, mudhen

Best places to see in Tennessee: Reelfoot Lake may be the most likely place to see a Common Gallinule.

For more information:


Bannor, Brett K. and Erik Kiviat. 2002. Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus), The Birds of North America, No. 685 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

Nicholson, C. P. 1997. Atlas of Breeding Birds of Tennessee. Univ. of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, TN.

Robinson J. C. 1990. An Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Tennessee. Univ. of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, TN.

Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.