This bird’s name goes back to the days whenever a moor was any kind of waste-land unsuitable for cultivation; thus on some soils the ‘moors’ could be ill-drained land, semi-marsh with increased or less permanent pools, which would be the haunts of the moorhen.
The alternative name, water-hen, is nowadays more apt, but the volume of water required to form the foundation of a moorhen’s territory might be surprisingly small; just a little duckpond on a village green, a level smaller pool in dense woodland, or perhaps a downland dewpond, in each case several miles from every other water, are actual types of the minimal requirements that will suffice for one set of birds.
These examples, as well as the alacrity with which new artificial pools (near suitable cover) are tenanted, shows that there is always a surplus population prospecting for brand new homes. The isolated breeding-sites mentioned must have actually first been espied from the air, yet the moorhen is seldom observed in sustained flight.
Like others of the rail family-coot, corncrake and water rail-the moorhen probably performs its migratory movements by night. Thus it’s been noted, at sites for example old gravel-pits used as refuse-dumps, or the old-fashioned sewage-farm, both very attractive as winter-haunts for big moorhen assemblies, that numbers may increase greatly between one dusk and the ensuing dawn.
Of the rails the moorhen is the least specialised and for that reason the most versatile; its toes only have developed slight edging membrane being an aid to swimming, yet it swims as freely as the lobe-footed coot; its extremely long toes are as efficient for walking on oozy mud as the ones from the water rail; it may elongate its body and thread its way through dense vegetation as rapidly so that as rat-like as either water rail or corncrake; and-an achievement which sets it apart-it can exploit higher amounts of vegetation, because of not only may often it roost and nest full of a hawthorn hedge, but additionally it may walk along the surface of the same hedge to feast upon haws.