The Common Gallinule: Gallinula Galeata

A familiar sight and sound in waterways and wetlands across the state, the pigeon-sized Common Gallinule is a year-round Florida resident and a member of the rail family. As such, the gallinule has several relatives including the similar-looking American Coot, Purple Gallinule and exotic Grey-headed Swamphen. Often mistaken for a small duck, gallinules do indeed float and swim at the water’s surface, but are equally comfortable on land, or using their long yellow toes to clamber about in reeds and cattails or distribute their weight like snowshoes to lightly walk across lily pads and other floating vegetation.

What Does the Common Gallinule Eat?

Feeding on a variety of plants, seeds, small fish, insects and other small creatures, the Common Gallinule is a consummate omnivore quite capable of providing for itself, but it isn’t above begging for human handouts.

How Does the Common Gallinule Bird Breed?

Parents aggressively defend nests and chicks from potential threats, even charging intruders many times their own size. After building a deep, cup-like nest in marsh vegetation, females lay several tan, brown-speckled eggs. After about 20 days incubation, golfball-sized gallinule chicks hatch into the world as some of the cutest and ugliest little birds on the planet. The precocious chicks emerge as fat, little, fuzzy balls of black down with bright, pinkish bald spots to give any grandpa a run for his money, and prominent blue brows that look as if the chicks got into grandma’s eyeshadow.

History of Florida’s Common Gallinule

Facing a bit of an identity crisis, The Common Gallinule has historically and variously been known as Florida Gallinule, Black Gallinule and the colloquial name of “marsh hen”. For several years it had also been lumped together with and carried the name of its very similar European cousin, the Common Moorhen. In 2011, the Common Gallinule was again separated from its Old World kin and regained its own specific name and status. Regardless of its nomenclature, this smallish, black marsh bird is a ubiquitous and interesting part of our native Florida wildlife.

Florida’s Common Gallinule Habitat

Florida’s Common Gallinule frequent fresh marshes with open water and reedy ponds, although they can often be found on still or slow-moving waters. They like some open ground with dense cover along the edges. Sometimes you can see them on ponds that are more open with minimal marsh cover. They prefer brackish or freshwater with a mix of floating, submerged, and emergent aquatic vegetation and are open all year. They also frequent sewage lagoons, urban stormwater retention ponds, and artificial aquaculture ponds.

How Many Eggs Can the Common Gallinule Lay?

A female Common Gallinule lays between 5-13 eggs that are buff in color with irregular brown spots. Both parents incubate the eggs, which takes about 19-22 days. The chicks swim well shortly after hatching and are cared for by both parents and often by older siblings from other clutches. They gradually learn to fend for themselves and are mostly self-sufficient in about three weeks. The parents may supplement their feeding until the chicks are past six weeks of age. The young Gallinules are capable of flight at about 40-50 days. A pair may have 1 or 2 clutches a year and, in rare instances, three.

Climate Threats Facing The Common Gallinule

Threats to Common Gallinules in North America are not well known. The population has undoubtedly declined over much of its range due to the loss of wetlands. In areas where wetlands and marshes still exist, the birds can be widespread within their historical range. They are listed as threatened in America because of both predation and habitat loss.

While in some areas loss of wetland habitat threatens the health of Common Gallinule populations, in other areas, their population has increased. In these instances, the birds take advantage of newly created marshy areas such as retention ponds. They are hunted in several states, but because the hunting data includes Common and Purple Gallinules, the threat to their overall numbers is unclear.

What Does a Common Gallinule Bird Sound Like?

The Common Gallinule makes a range of sounds, including cackles, whinnies, squawks, yelps, and a chickenlike cluck. They often call while hidden, making you wonder what is lurking in the dense marshes. They make a rapid series of clucks that sound vaguely raptor-like but usually ends with a sound like a laugh.

Their squawks can be high-pitched and piercing or low-pitched and grating. They often mix and match their calls, adding a cluck or squawk after a cackle or vice versa. They tend to be more vocal during the April-June breeding season.