There seem to be plenty of moorhens about on the river at the moment. The ratio of adults to youngsters suggests that it has been a particularly good breeding season and this bodes well for the winter ahead. It also suggests that the mink that had previously been present on this stretch have now gone, thanks to a combination of trapping and the return of the otters. There is something very comical about the moorhen. When seen out of water, the charcoal grey body appears to have been glued onto the thick yellow-green legs of a larger bird. The moorhen seems to emphasise this, as if unaware of someone else’s practical joke, by walking with a sprightly high-stepping gait. Alongside this there is the regular flicking of the short tail, like a nervous twitch, which again adds to a rather unusual demeanour.
Despite their comedic appearance, moorhens are rather interesting birds. For example, the moorhen holds the dubious distinction of being one of the first birds to fall victim to a firearm within Norfolk. Two great Norfolk nature writers, Gurney and Stevenson, both cite a record of one being “kylled wt the gun” in the mid-1500s. Indeed, the moorhen has sometimes featured as a bird for the table (and still does in other parts of Europe). The dark meat was used in some rural parts to supplement the limited rations available during World War Two. Interestingly, some authors suggest that the bird was skinned rather than plucked prior to cooking. Certainly the moorhen is a popular component in the diet of a number of predators and the species appears especially vulnerable when nesting.
Although most of our resident moorhens remain on their breeding territories throughout the year, they are forced to move during periods of severe winter weather, when waterbodies freeze over and food becomes hard to find. Moorhens from breeding populations in Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands are known to winter here and large numbers may regularly gather at favoured sites. Back in the mid-1990s we used to have a couple of dozen moorhens gather at the bottom of The Nunnery lawn in Thetford. These birds would feed on the edge of the lawn or venture into the wet woodland which separated the grounds from the river. We made an effort to trap and ring the birds – a job which involved careful handling because of the extremely sharp claws sported by these birds – and were rewarded several months later by the report of one that had made its way to Shetland. Other individuals (not ringed by us) have been reported from Denmark, Sweden and the Low Countries. There is certainly more to this bird than you might imagine.