Editor’s Note (August 2016): Maps, rich media, and text have been updated to reflect a taxonomic change/split for this species. This species account is still being edited and may contain content from an earlier version of the account.
Widespread in the Americas, with a striking appearance and a variety of loud and unusual calls, the Common Gallinule is a rail the size of a small duck, with short tail and wings, long toes, and (in the adult) a short, bright-red-and-yellow bill. Sexes are similar in plumage. This species is ecologically and behaviorally intermediate between the American Coot and the rails, and it resembles the Purple Gallinule in certain respects. It breeds throughout much of the eastern United States and locally in the West, wintering in southeastern and southwestern states with the largest concentration in Florida. Individuals are territorial in the breeding season but somewhat gregarious in winter. Closely associated with marshes, ponds, canals, ditches, and rice fields where pools with submerged or floating vegetation are interspersed with emergent or shoreline vegetation, this species forages for plant materials and macroinvertebrates on the water surface, among submerged plants, and in shoreline and upland vegetation. Its diet and foraging modes are diverse. In some regions, Common Gallinule use altered, artificial, agricultural, or urban habitats, including small ponds, during the breeding and nonbreeding seasons.
Historically known as the Common Moorhen, Florida Gallinule, and Black Gallinule, most American research on this species has been conducted in the southern United States, especially Louisiana and Florida, where gallinules are more common and conspicuous than in the North and West. Diet has been well studied in Florida (Mulholland and Percival 1982, O'Meara et al. 1982, Haag et al. 1987), and breeding biology in Louisiana (Bell and Cordes 1977, Matthews 1983b, Helm et al. 1987). Although tolerant of urban and agricultural habitats, pollution and alteration of wetlands constitute potential threats to this bird. Relationships between vegetation structure and this species, including the effects of muskrats and other herbivores on habitat and the impacts of plant invasions, need study. Common Gallinules are hunted in the conterminous 48 states; little is known about how this affects populations.
There is an endemic subspecies in the Hawaiian Islands. In native Hawaiian mythology, a Common Gallinule brought fire to humankind, its forehead scorching red in the act.