Chances are good that if you’ve seen and identified this bird before, you know it as the Common Moorhen (Gallinula cholorpus). In July 2011, though, the American Ornithologists’ Union voted to split the American population of the bird into its own separate species, the Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata).
You might be wondering, who gets to decide what to call a bird, and how do they make that decision? Well, according to its website, the American Ornithologists’ Union is “one of the oldest organizations in the world dedicated to the scientific study of birds“. As such, it commands a great deal of respect from ornithologists worldwide, and the research it sponsors and produces greatly increases our understanding of the bird world. In a nutshell, if these folks say the American gallinules are a different species than those found in other parts of the world, then there’s an awfully good chance they are. Online guides like Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s AllAboutBirds.com have changed their ID pages accordingly, and future editions of paper field guides will undoubtedly do the same.
The Common Gallinule and its relative, the Common Moorhen, are the most commonly seen members of the Rail family (Rallidae) around much of the world. Here in the U.S., it’s found year-round in the south, including Florida, and spreads throughout the eastern half of the country in the summer breeding season. The red face patch and bill tipped with yellow make it easily identifiable. NOTE: Despite the new name, don’t confuse the Common Gallinule with its arguably more gorgeous relative, the Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinica). Juveniles are a drab brown until their first mating season in the spring when they take on the adult coloration.
It’s a small bird, compared to companion ducks and other water birds. It eats mostly vegetation, but supplements its diet with small snails it finds among the floating leaves. It has very cool feet, with extremely long toes, and despite the lack of webbing, it’s an excellent swimmer.
Does it particularly matter what the name of a bird is? For most people, probably not. But, if you’re participating in bird counts or contributing to Citizen Science projects, you’ll want to make sure you have your names correct. Do you see Common Gallinules when you’re out spotting birds? Tell us about it in the comments!