Dabbs, the dusky moorhen
Hello. My name is Dabbs, and I am a dusky moorhen living at Calamvale Creek in Brisbane, Australia.
Some of the other birds around the creek call us scaredy cats, because we are so jittery that we run for cover at any abnormal noise in the area or if humans come close. We are always screeching and charging up and down the creek when there is the slightest disturbance.
Like all dusky moorhens, I love creeks, wetlands and streams with vegetation at the side — reeds, long grasses, rushes — and lots of waterlilies and fallen branches to climb over between swimming sessions. We duskies tend to stay in small groups. Here's my group below taking turns at playing “Walk the plank” across a partly submerged log.
What's the difference between moorhens and swamphens?
Some people confuse dusky moorhens with purple swamphens, because we are usually in the same area. But there are easy ways to tell the difference. Look at the photo below. That's me, Dabbs the dusky moorhen, on the left, and Pru the purple swamphen is on the right.
Dusky moorhens have a distinct yellow tip at the end of our beaks. Swamphens don't. If you can see the yellow, that's a moorhen.
Other differences are that dusky moorhens are smaller, and darker brown. Purple swamphens have a distinct blue (or purplish) neck and breast, whereas we are brown on our wings and greyish with just a tinge of blue on our breast.
Young moorhens are much duller and browner than adults, and have a greenish beak.
What do I eat?
I mostly eat water plants, which I get by “dipping” (see photo at left), or sometimes by dabbling like the Pacific black ducks around the creek.
I eat algae, grasses, seeds, molluscs, bread, small frogs, and insects.
I never actually dive for food — you can always see my tail feathers above the water when I'm upended.
Check out the feet!
Above: Notice my whopping big feet. These big feet and toes give me surefootedness when I'm running over lily pads and mud. But they do slow me down on dry land. When I walk on dry land I take slow deliberate steps so that I don't trip over my feet.
Importance of frontal shield
Even though dusky moorhens seem shy, we fight a lot among ourselves. There are usually more males than females in any group, so fights break out regularly.
But I can tell you how to pick the winner of almost any dusky moorhen dispute. Look at the size of the red frontal shield on the bill of the duskies involved — the bigger the shield, the bigger the winner.
Ignore body size, weight, fitness, or whether the dusky is male or female. Sometimes shield size varies by 25 per cent. If one bird has a bigger shield than the others in the dispute, that one will nearly always win.
Sometimes a fight doesn't even start because all the birds know who the winner will be. It's a strange dusky moorhen peculiarity.
In the photo at right, a fight has broken out. But we all know the winner even while the screeching and chasing is going on. The dusky in front had the biggest, brightest shield, and soon put the other dusky in his place.
Breeding and nesting
Our breeding season is usually from January till May, but it varies with the area. In more southern parts of Australia the breeding season is towards the end of the year.
In the breeding season, we form groups of between two and seven dusky moorhens. All members of the group help build the nest, and two or more females may lay eggs in the same nest, which is a large cup of grass, sticks, bark or reeds slightly above water level.
There may be 10 or more eggs in the nest, depending on the number of females who have laid eggs in it (four or five eggs from each bird). Eggs are buff coloured with small brown blotches. Incubation period is 24 days, and the young will leave the nest about 28 days later.
— Dabbs, the dusky moorhen