Waterhens are clowns of the water

My boat was tied up in a marina and I was sitting on deck when a visitor arrived. A waterhen walking slowly along the jetty. They really are the clowns among water birds.

The vermillion beak with its bright yellow tip is like a ridiculous false nose, there are two vulgar white flashes on its bum and the feet! Huge green feet with long gangling toes, so long they have to lift them high off the ground every time it takes a step, which results in a comical gait.

Most waterhens (I prefer this name to moorhen, which is English rather than Irish) are shy birds of rural waterways but the marina I was in was in the middle of the bustling town of Athlone, Co Westmeath, and my visitor was far from shy, paying no attention to boats, dogs or people. They are joining the growing number of water bird species that are discovering the advantages of living among people. The first were probably mute swans, followed by mallard ducks. Grey herons started becoming urban dwellers about 20 years ago and now it’s waterhens.

The fact that this is an inherited behavioural change was neatly illustrated a few minutes later when my visitor was joined by its adolescent offspring. Young waterhens, until they’re over a year old, are much dowdier birds. They have no false nose and their plumage, a mixture of greys and browns, looks rather untidy. They remain in a family group with their parents for a remarkably long time.

The mendicant mallard ducks that are found practically everywhere on our inland waterways where boats moor regularly are a bit different. In the main they are not wild birds that have learnt the advantages of human company. Mallard are reared in large quantities, along with pheasants, in places called game farms. The birds are mostly sold to gun clubs so that their members can shoot them. But some are sold to residents’ associations, Tidy Town groups and other voluntary bodies who want to do something ‘for the wildlife’.

Whether these semi-tame birds, which often breed very rapidly, do actually contribute anything to the biodiversity of the area they are released in is a bit questionable. In the game farms the mallard eggs are hatched out by domestic ducks. There’s a certain amount of inter-breeding between the domestic ducks and the wild ones.

Some domestic ducks are bred for egg production rather than meat. When their genes become incorporated into the wild birds huge amounts of eggs are laid, often at inappropriate times of year, and the duck population can increase very rapidly.

But truly wild water birds are one of the joys of boat travel.

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