Moor-hen shooting by H. R. Robertson. Source: Life on the Upper Thames. Text and formatting by George P. Landow, [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the University of Toronto and the Internet Archive and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite it in a print one.]

THE moor-hen, or water-hen, is the most frequently seen of all the wild-fowl that are regarded as incidental to the Upper Thames. Its long legs, which dangle and touch the surface of the water into repeated circles, the glimpse of white feathers behind, and the sealing-wax-like spots of red that adorn the bill, render it easily distinguishable. It not unfrequently leaves the water to seek its food in the adjacent meadows. When startled, it runs with great rapidity, and dashes, half running, half flying, into the water, and either dives or skims over the surface to its rushy covert. We have known it run up the trunk of an old pollard-willow and shelter itself among the branches. Its toes are so long and spreading as to enable it to pass over soft ooze or even the flat leaves of the water-lily: and though they are neither webbed nor fringed, the bird swims well and dives readily.

The nest of the moor-hen is to be sought for amid the sedges and flags of the water-side, that furnish the materials of which it is composed, and screen it from casual observation. Sometimes it is placed upon a low, thickly foliaged, floating branch, or the stump of a decayed willow. In the "Museum of Natural History," published by Charles Knight, it is stated that, with a view to concealment from the rat and snake, the moor-hen carefully covers up her eggs whenever she leaves the nest during the period of incubation. Our own observation has not borne out this statement; out of twenty or thirty instances in which we have come across a nest with eggs in it, on only one occasion have we found the eggs at all covered up, and then it appeared to have resulted from a gust of wind rather than from the prudence of the bird. It has occurred to us that a moor-hen may have taken the precaution mentioned in some case where the nest was made in an unusually exposed situation, and that the observer has too readily generalised from the single instance. More probably, however, the mistake has arisen by confusing the bird in question with the dab-chick (the little grebe), which really has the habit of concealing its nest so carefully as to make it extremely difficult to find.

To any one who may happen to go a cruise on the river above Oxford about the end of April, the eggs of the moor-hen make a satisfactory addition to the few luxuries attainable in this far from highly civilised part of the world. The e^g (reddish white with brown spots) is a marked size larger than that of the wood-pigeon, and has a flavour not very unlike that of the guineafowl. As to the use of the birds themselves for the table, our own experience would not lead us to praise them for any delicacy of flavour; we will, therefore, echo the advice of Mr. Shandy when he says, "Carefully abstain, that is, as much as thou canst, from coots, didappers, and water-hens."

Mr. Gould, in his " Birds of Great Britain," has the following remarks as to the character of this bird that may be fairly introduced here as not generally known: — " Boldness and pugnacity appear to be part of the moor-hen's nature, and its quarrelsome disposition renders it an unpleasant neighbour to any peaceful bird that may live in close contiguity. This leads me to a trait in its character which will not redound to its credit: still it ought to be known. The moor-hen comes walking over the lawn, turning its head first to the right, then to the left, jerking its short, uplifted tail, apparently all peace and amiability; but should the chick of a fowl or pheasant or a duckling cross his path, a single stroke of his pointed bill lays the little innocent dead at his feet, almost without a kick or struggle; and many losses to the keeper and the housewife have occurred which are not charged to the moor-hen."

Moor-hen shooting used to commence in different parts of the river either about the 12th or the 25th of the month of August. However, by the Act of Parliament passed last session (35 — 36 Vict. ch. 78) for the protection of certain wild birds during the breeding season, it is forbidden to kill or offer for sale the birds specified between the 15 th day of March and the ist day of August. The schedule to the Act has a wide range, comprising wild birds large and small, from the swan and the bittern down to the redbreast and the wren. There is a curious caprice shown in the selection of the seventy-nine species to be protected; for instance, the dab-chick and the water-rail are omitted from the list, while the coot and the moor-hen are included.

When out with a gun after the moor-hen, the assistance of a good retriever or water-spaniel is an absolute necessity. When the dog employed has started a moor-hen in the direction of the sportsman, the bird on catching sight of him will, in many cases, suddenly dive. Its course may be tracked by the air-bubbles that rise to the surface of the water. The bird itself may often be observed to come up quietly and remain .perfectly still, with half its head out of the water. On two occasions when we have been out with a fisherman this has happened, and we have seen powder saved by a well-directed blow from a pole or long stick, which has either killed the bird or crippled it so that the dog could easily come up with it. Instead of taking to the wing, the moor-hen often tries dodgingj about among the rushes, and a good dog will often capture an unwounded bird.

As the subject of our chapter, though a wild bird, is not "game," it may be shot by any one in a boat licensed to carry a gun. A large majority of the moor-hens killed fall, however, to the gun of the fisherman, who will sometimes go so far as to speak of the parties shooting fix>m boats as poachers. Persons shooting from the land would be liable to prosecution for trespass, and we have been given to understand that motioning with the hand to a dog on the bank is legally construed into trespsiss. When a party of the so-called poachers are about, the fisherman generally takes care to show himself with his dog and gun, with the idea at all events of sharing the sport, if he cannot prevent it. — Robertson, 142-45


Robertson, H. R. Life on the Upper Thames. London: Virtue, Spalding, & Co., 1875.Internet Archive digitized from a copy in the University of Toronto Library.

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Last modified 8 May 2012