One of my favourite Monty Python sketches involves a rather enthusiastic documentary into the sordid sex lives of the mollusks. Without ever meaning to I’m afraid a similar base article is being written by me right now for you, so please, send the children away, this isn’t suitable for them. Please do not think any less of me, I set out to write a more sensationalist piece about adult Dusky Moorhens murdering their young, only to realise when I opened a book to do some research that I had misremembered that fact and it was coots that committed that misdeed. But I had pictures of moorhens to show and luckily for me I did find something to write about for this species.

Dusky Moorhen

I’ll admit I haven’t thought much about moorhens in the past. They’re kind of there, often only two rails you might see for months at a time (the other being whatever passes for your local coot). My parents have a pair of Common Moorhens on their pond and they’re nice to see but I never rally think about them. And I’ve always assumed that the Dusky Moorhen, found in Sulawesi, New Guinea and Australia was basically more of the same, but I was wrong!


Common Moorhens are, like most birds, monogamous breeders, and may bond for a number of years in the same territory. They may breed as a group, but monogamy is the general rule. Not so the Dusky Moorhen, which is a pervert of the first order, and mostly (according to the HBW) breeds in groups, with all males mating with all females(!). All members of this little commune share the responsibilities of looking after the chicks, building the nests and defending the territory. Honesty, you’d think they were Dunnocks.


The important take home message is not that these birds are somehow hippie deviants (unless you buy into some heteronormative worldview that you also seek to impose on nature), but that the species that you may be very familiar can surprise you in ways you never expected. I’ll certainly take a closer and more appreciative look at these funky little dudes next time I see them.

Dusky Moorhen


Written by Duncan
Duncan Wright is a Wellington-based ornithologist working on the evolution of New Zealand's birds. He's previously poked albatrosses with sticks in Hawaii, provided target practice for gulls in California, chased monkeys up and down hills Uganda, wrestled sharks in the Bahamas and played God with grasshopper genetics in Namibia. He came into studying birds rather later in life, and could quit any time he wants to.