Moorhen Mystery at Martin Mere

adult moorhens

3 adult moorhens watching a chick in one nest – what’s going on here then? This photo – without the copyright slogan – is available as a note card.


When I decided on a day trip to Martin Mere, the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust reserve in Lancashire, little did I know I would end up staying for a week!

Was I fascinated by the exotic wildfowl from all over the world? Was I pumped to follow the twitchers in their quest to glimpse the BlueThroat that has been sighted there?


two female adult moorhens being fed by another moorhen


I was complete intrigued by the behaviour around a moorhen nest. Why were three adult females all sitting in the same nest with two chicks and three eggs? Were they breeding females laying eggs in the same nest? .Some of the Trust’s staff seemed to think so but I had my doubts. Only by watching the behaviour over the next few days while the remaining eggs hatched revealed what was really going on.

Subsequent observation showed a total of 6 adult moorhens at this nesting area.


Now before you tell me moorhens are boringly common birds, let me just say I’ve been watching them for several years now and they never fail to amuse and intrigue me. I’ve watched juvenile ones look after newly hatched chicks and adults look after them all. but I have never seen this before. Let me tell you first of all what I would normally expect to see in moorhen behaviour.

  • Paired moorhens come back at the beginning of the season, meet up with each other again and build a nest, very often in exactly the same place ever year.
  • Both male and female help building the nest and sitting on the eggs. It seems the rule is, one off, one on – the eggs are never left alone.
  • They would have 2 or 3 broods every year.
  • Once the chicks become juvenile, the couple with lay more eggs.
  • When they hatch, the juveniles as well as the parents will help feed, groom and protect the chicks.
  • At the end of the year, one of the adults will move away till next year. It seems to me they also take their 2 or 3 broods away to find their own territory. Or perhaps the young find territory by themselves.

PHOTO JOURNAL – I actually self-published a photo journal of just such a nest in 2010. You can see a preview at the bottom of this page.

Martin Mere Moorhens

These moorhens were not behaving as I would expect – no surprise there – the thing about nature is that it always has something that will surprise you.

So why the heck were 6 adult moorhens all invested in one nest. In the nest were 2 chicks and 3 eggs? What became clear, or as clear as I can be, was this was a family. Moorhens are very territorial and will chase off all comers including other moorhens – not so these which shows they are related.

In the group are the parents, and the other four females I think were probably adults from those parents’ last year’s brood. I suppose in effect what we are seeing in this instance is fully adult females behaving like juveniles.

Of the two chicks, one had hatched the day before I arrived and one on that day. That left 3 eggs still to hatch. As I would expect, that first day the chicks remained in the nest. At any one time either the mature female or the male sat of the nest, sometimes with one or more of the younger females sitting there too.

moorhen and eggs

Female moorhen turning the eggs

All day the parent out of the nest plus the other females would bring nesting material and food to the nest.

Over the next posts in this bird journal I will share my observations as well as my photos. Just bear with me as I edit and post. All of this will eventually be incorporated in a photo book with more detailed information but for now, let me leave you with a selection of photos from day one.

moorhen nest

Spot the chick!

moorhen nest

Maybe not his best idea!

moorhen nest

“Here you go son.”

moorhen grooming

Two in a bed – 2 female moorhens – this photo is available as a note card

moorhen grooming

Grooming is a bonding exercise

moorhen grooming


moorhen grooming


moorhen nest 030 10x8 200dpi copyright

Feeding moorhen on the nest



photo journal about one such nest in 2010.