Marsh Babies


On July 14, 2017, I found a family of common gallinules (Gallinula galeata) settling in for the night among broken reeds at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge.  Their chosen spot may appear uncomfortable to our eyes, but at least four chicks seemed happy enough to disappear under their mother’s protective feathers.  

For the rest of that summer and throughout 2018, I hoped for another glimpse of the young birds (sometimes called moorhens, or marsh hens). Adults were plentiful, but any babies remained well hidden within the ponds’ vegetation.  Finally, last Sunday, I discovered a mother and seven chicks busily feeding and exploring the world.

At first glance, I thought the chicks were contortionists, and that the bits of red near their wings were feet or legs. Instead, newly hatched gallinule chicks have ‘spurs’ on their wings that help them climb into the nest or capture vegetation. Able to swim within a day of hatching, they still need a little help with life on the land, and the spurs function admirably.

The floating vegetation may not seem appetizing to us, but it clearly appealed to the birds, who spent the better part of an hour cruising the buffet table.

With chicks swimming every which way, it wasn’t easy to get a photo of the group, but this pair came fairly close, and stopped their foraging long enough for a portrait.

Eventually, the mother had enough, and began leading her brood toward the other side of the pond. During the crossing, only six of her seven stayed close.

It’s common for every group of young mallards to have one straggler in the group: a baby who’s always too busy exploring to keep up with the family. At least in this instance, it was the same with the gallinules. This little one dawdled, until its mother began calling from the other side of the pond.

After some enthusiastic paddling, the straggler made the passage safely and, almost beyond reach of my camera, mother and chicks disappeared into the sheltering grasses. With luck, I’ll see them again before they’re teenagers.


Comments always are welcome.


39 thoughts on “Marsh Babies

  1. Again a coincidence: bird pictures on the same morning, even if not the same kind of bird.

    Judging from my experience on group field trips in nature, I suspect the laggard chick fell behind because it kept stopping to take photographs.

    1. Feathers in both our caps, I’d say.

      As for stopping to take photographs, I had a funny experience during my most recent visit to the Sandylands Sanctuary. I’d gone in via a work road rather than a trail, and after about three hours, I came to a spot where two or three trails came together. I wasn’t sure which to take, so I decided to backtrack. It took me all of fifteen minutes to get back to the parking area.

  2. Aw, Linda, these are so sweet! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if humans could swim only a day after “hatching”?? Great job capturing the moms and babies exploring, dining, and enjoying life together. Won’t be long before those babies start families of their own!

    1. I learned a new word while I was reading about these birds. Their young are classified as ‘precocial’ because they’re capable of moving around on their own soon after hatching. A related word we use to describe some children is ‘precocious.’

      There’s just something about young waterbirds that’s so appealing. I’m accustomed to seeing mallard ducklings, but it was fun to see these behaving in much the same way. I like the color scheme, too.

  3. Had to laugh – a buffet table, indeed. Always a straggler no matter the species. Bird moms have such a nervous life corralling the little ones who pay no attention that it’s for their own good. What great pictures – these are the most beautiful birds with their beak decorations (and you got that little fuzzy look of the babies! So hard to capture well a black creature.) Hope you can spot them again ( and mom there gets a rest)

    1. It’s true that there’s always a straggler, whether it’s bird babies or human youngsters. Even we adults dally from time to time. If the world weren’t so darned interesting, we wouldn’t have to stop so often.

      I think there was a lot more action going on in the grasses than was easily visible. If I’d had good binoculars or a longer lens, I probably would have seen even more gallinules, and coots, too. But we take what we can get; I just was happy to have a chance to see them at all.

      Mating season’s in full swing for another species, too. You should have heard the bellows from the gators. That’s no bullfrog, for sure.

  4. Nice set of shots! Interesting about the spurs for their land rovings, I wonder at what point they disappear? As to the straggler, there’s always one in the bunch.

    1. I found several sites that described the spurs, and talked about their purpose, but I couldn’t find any information about the point at which they lose them. I suspect that the little red bald spot and the spurs disappear at about the same time, whenever that is.

      I did come across this wonderful tidbit about multigenerational gallinule families, where the second or even third broods in a year help to take care of the younger chicks:

      “An unusual habit of moorhens is that chicks from the first brood often stay around in their natal territory and help feed their siblings from the second (or third) brood. Older juveniles from an earlier brood help the parents raise the new chicks. Moorhens are one of the few birds that exhibit this “aunting” process, permitting another moorhen to act as a parent, where the juveniles help feed and attend to the latest brood. If the parents produce a third brood, they can relax even more, with both the “adolescents” and “teenagers” helping to feed the latest fluffballs.”

      That’s a process I’d love to see.

    1. They are. This is another bird that we share; apparently they’re quite common in both our states. Another gallinule species, the purple gallinule, is even more spectacular, but I’ve only had one or two quick glimpses of those. It lives in your state, too.

  5. It seems to me that there is always something especially appealing about discovering adult birds with young. Almost certainly a few of those youngsters will get picked off by one predator or another, but with skill, perseverance and courage the parents will raise a couple to adulthood and the next generation will be assured.

    1. Around here, the mallards are especially prolific breeders, and it’s quite common to see a mother with ten, twelve, or even more babies trailing behind. The most I’ve ever seen is seventeen. They hatched somewhere around a local marina, and of course they were adored. The mother managed to raise all seventeen to adulthood — but that is, of course, the exception.

      It’s a rough life for the young. Our alligator garfish will pull a duckling down from below, while herring gulls pluck them out of the water from above. It really bothered me when I first began watching the process, but then I realized that if all of babes survived, we’d be up to our hips in ducks. It still gets to me when I hear a duckling that’s gotten separated from its family, cheeping and peeping all night long, but as a birder once told me, “They know how to be ducks.”

    1. I chuckled when I saw the mention of the spurs. Out in your part of the country, people have to earn their spurs — the baby gallinules get theirs as standard equipment! I was quite surprised that they hung around as long as they did, and that they were relatively accessible. It helped that there wasn’t any other traffic that day; it gave me a chance for a nice, long look at them.

  6. Those are particularly good shots of the babies. They look the same, (or similar), to our Dusky Moorhens (Gallinula tenebrosa) in Australia.

    1. Thanks, Vicki. I was pleased beyond words even to see them, and having them come close enough for photos was really special.

      I had to spend a good bit of time trying to figure out what the scientists had done with this species. Now known as common gallinules, these birds used to be called the common moorhen. And now, the bird previously known as the common gallinule is known as the common moorhen (Gallinula chloropus). Uh…

      In any event, what’s clear is that all of these — yours, ours, and theirs — are related. The birds are distinctive enough that the ‘family resemblance’ is clear, even if the classifications are a little confusing.

    1. I’m not sure where Pappa was when I took the photos of the group of seven babies, but when I found Mama with the babies tucked underneath, her mate was close by, helping to herd all the little ones to the nest. Both males and females do care for the chicks, although Pappa may find he has other things to do in the far marsh when those teenage “weeks” come along!

    1. They are cute. I haven’t found any information on the purpose of those little red bald spots on their heads, but they do help to complete their “outfits.” I hope I get to see them again, but if they grow as quickly as mallard ducklings, I’d best not dawdle.

  7. Lucky you to have found this sweet family. One of my favorite things is to see a duck mom with her trail of chicks following close behind. These gallinules are adorable, which means nothing to the citizens of the natural world but increases our pleasure at seeing them for sure.

    1. It’s fun to see the little ones, but it can be nerve-wracking, too. I’ll never forget the day I was coming home from somewhere and police had stopped traffic on an elevated bit of freeway to rescue a mallard mother and babies who were frantically trying to figure out where to go. We couldn’t figure out how they got up there. They had to have walked, since the babes couldn’t fly. We all watched and applauded, and later reports were that they were relocated to a local pond. Life is hard, sometimes!

      For these gallinules, life looks pretty darned good. They certainly have plenty of food and plenty of cover, and the youngsters are big enough now that they can make tracks if they need to.

      1. That happens often and happily so. Of course you must have read this as a child. And there are many stories like this too.
        Sadly, I have a dim view of the human race at large, but it’s the individuals that give hope for us.

        1. If you can believe it, Steve, I’ve never heard of Make Way for Ducklings — not the book, not the statue, not any of it. It sounds purely delightful, and it certainly was popular during my childhood years. Strange. On the other hand, most of the people I know aren’t familiar with Munro Leaf, even if they know his classic,The Story of Ferdinand — a tale of a Spanish bull who preferred smelling flowers to fighting. He got into trouble for that one (the author, not the bull). From the Wiki:

          “The story, which follows a gentle bull in rural Spain who prefers smelling flowers to bullfighting, sparked considerable controversy because Ferdinand was regarded by some as a pacifist symbol. Banned in Spain and burned as propaganda in Nazi Germany, the book had over 60 foreign translations and has never gone out of print. The story was adapted into a Walt Disney film which won a 1938 Academy Award.”

          I found a really interesting and enjoyable article about the whole kerfluffle, and I’ll tuck it in here, just so I can find it again. You might enjoy it, too.

          1. Although I was aware of Ferdinand as a child, I had no idea until now about the politics involved. We sometimes think our current politics are particularly convoluting things for its own purposes but history shows that it’s not all that different. Early elections had opponents claiming the others killed babies, etc. I’ll not go further with that thought.

            1. That certainly doesn’t dissuade my low estimation of humans. Ignorance leads to so much unnecessary brutality. It is something that I fear for our country although certainly nothing like this.

              Although there was this recently that your link reminded me about. Obviously done for other reasons but mind numbing just the same. While not as awful as political ritual murders,

              I am horrified by the separation of families being done by our government and the loss of life of some of those separated young people. Some may feel the folks seeking asylum should not be at our border and everyone has a right to their opinion, but family separation is inexcusable in my view. I know…I said I wouldn’t go there but it’s hard to not mention it in such a conversation.

              Human history is filled with unspeakable acts done to the other for so many different reasons, most of which are unfortunately unnecessary.

              I’ll stop as this really is a direction your lovely ducks wouldn’t want us to go.

            2. It’s not a direction we need to go, either — especially since you have a week of flower hunting ahead of you. Often enough, the bad gets balanced by the good, in any number of ways.

  8. As you might guess, I love this post more than I can say. The birds are gorgeous, just beautiful. I love that you’ve been able to follow them. That nest photo is a real prize, especially and all the pix are great. I noticed the following thing with one of our gosling families. These are especially beautiful and you’ve found them on a wonderful day. I’m surprised how quickly birds change and grow. Can’t wait to see the teens!

    1. That nest photo warms my heart. It’s not just cute, it’s touching. What isn’t in the photo is the papa gallinule, who’s helping to get the chicks over to the nest. I’m not sure if they bond for life — I suspect not — but both father and mother do help care for the babies.

      If I’m really, really lucky this year, I’ll find some kildeer babies. I’ve seen several adult kildeers, so there probably are nests around. They’re the funniest young’uns in the world. They look like little golf balls on legs, and they run as fast as their parents from the time they hatch. Now that I think of it, there aren’t many bird babies I don’t think are cute — except for the ones who hatch with closed eyes and no feathers. They’re not so cute, but they’re still pretty special.

    1. I can’t keep myself from thinking of candy corn when I see those bills. Of course, when I see candy corn at Halloween, I think of gallinules, so everything balances out. Glad you enjoyed seeing these great little birds.

    1. The sounds of babies are everywhere now. I’m sitting here listening to both mockingbirds and mallards squawking to be fed. But these little ones? I didn’t hear a peep from them — perhaps because they were able to be out foraging for themselves, and weren’t so dependent on their parents. In any event, they were thriving, indeed, and with luck will still be around the next time I visit their home.

  9. That’s interesting about the spurs the young ones have. Coots became a recurring theme on our trip in northern Europe – they were everywhere. There are so many canals in the cities we visited, always with their patrolling coots, and we spotted quite a few nests, too. The European coot is a little different but the gestalt is the same. :-)

    1. We have coots galore here, but the gallinules are less common. I still haven’t seen a purple gallinule. It’s here. but I think I need to go across Galveston Bay to a different wildlife refuge to find it. Seeing those colors would make the trip worthwhile. When the coots are arriving or departing during migration, they raft up in groups of hundreds. It’s quite a sight, for sure.

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