The sorrowful tale of Little Mo the moorhen chick

This post doesn’t have anything to do with mountains, so please forgive the indulgence (lockdown does strange things to your travelling instincts). It’s a salutary tale about interaction with nature that may interest you though. It contains some useful lessons (for me, at least) and a few schoolboy errors that I expect will have some of you shaking your heads in disbelief.

Right outside the main front porch of our house, a pair of moorhens have built a nest among sprawling ivy on a pergola. The nest is about two metres off the ground and barely more than two flaps of a wing away from our heads when we leave the front door.

A moorhen perches on a log at the London Wetlands Centre
A moorhen perches on a log at the London Wetlands Centre

Moorhens often nest among reeds beside the river, but I was surprised to discover that they also sometimes nest in trees. Our moorhen pair had probably chosen this location because it’s relatively safe from predators, but it has a downside. A newly born chick’s first journey involves a six foot fall onto the grass. It then has to struggle across the garden and through a hole in the wall, cross the road to a driveway, then walk along a hedge behind our woodshed to get to the river.

The weekend before last, the sun was shining and we were enjoying an afternoon drink in the garden when I looked up to see a tiny black object squeaking a few metres away.

A moorhen chick had just that minute fledged. It had fallen out of the nest onto the grass and was making its way across the lawn in our direction.

We could hear its mother squawking somewhere in the hedge behind us; we assumed the two of them would be united, and mother would lead baby out of the garden and across the driveway to the river. But the chick had other ideas. Edita was talking with her own mother on the phone, and the chick made a beeline straight towards her, perhaps attracted by the pinkness of her socks and the sound of her voice.

For several minutes, the chick squeaked piteously at Edita’s feet. Despite its mother’s encouragement nearby, the chick wouldn’t leave Edita’s side, and neither would its mother come out of hiding to make its presence known. It was as though the chick had decided that Edita was its mum.

It took us too long to realise that the mother wasn’t go to come until we went away. But the poor little chick had become quite tired. Moorhens are supposed to be precocial. This means they can look after themselves as soon as they hatch, but in fact moorhen chicks are pretty helpless. You will see from the video that it struggled to cross the grass. Its feathers are still downy, its wings too tiny for flying, and its feet are disproportionately large. The feet are positioned at the back of its body, which means the chick has a tendency to topple forward onto its front.

Watch on YouTube

We retreated to the porch and watched with our hearts in our mouths as the mother tried to entice the chick out of the garden. But the chick was struggling and the mother was becoming impatient. Then the chick fell into an indentation in the lawn where a plant pot was sitting. It rolled in a somersault and expended a lot of energy trying to right itself and climb out again.

It managed to crawl another metre before collapsing in a heap, unable to move any further. The mother kept pacing backwards and forwards, trying to encourage it into movement. At one point, she looked like she was trying to get the chick to climb onto her back. But it was too much for the exhausted chick. Eventually the mother left, and we watched for a long time as the chick lay motionless in the middle of the lawn, a tempting treat for any predators flying overhead.

The received wisdom is that you should let nature take its course. However heartbreaking it may be to leave a helpless chick, abandoned by its parent, you must not interfere.

That was my inclination, but Edita is made of more compassionate stuff. She is paid to save human lives in her day job as a humanitarian logistics professional; she wasn’t going to abandon a little chick that had crawled across a lawn and chosen her. The sun was dropping behind the trees and there was a chill in the air. Without its mother to warm it, the chick looked ready to die of cold. Edita decided to rescue it.

She brought it inside, wrapped it in a thick wool sock, and placed it in a cardboard box over a bowl of warm water. It wasn’t moving, and it lay slumped on its front, looking like it was going to fall asleep and die. But as it warmed up, it became more lively. It twitched its head and began tweeting.

Little Mo the moorhen chick with his bed, food and water
Little Mo the moorhen chick with his bed, food and water

Little Mo (as the chick became known) had been left for dead, but could it yet survive if we gave it some food and reunited it with its parents? There was only one way to find out.

In fact, feeding a moorhen chick is easier said than done. They may be precocial, but it quickly became clear that Little Mo wasn’t going to feed himself. Edita left him tiny bits of bread and grass in water; she soaked duck food and cut it into tiny bits. She even went out into the garden to find some tiny worms. She left plenty of food in Little Mo’s box, but he wouldn’t touch it.

He would only take food if we offered it to him, but getting it into his mouth wasn’t easy. He was clearly hungry, but rarely would he open his beak for us. When he did, it was hard to get the food inside his tiny mouth. He would make a lunge for it, and more often than not, he dropped the food onto the ground. We tried using tweezers, but it was a tricky operation.

Meanwhile, our neighbour contacted an animal rescue specialist to see if they could help. They said that if we could keep Little Mo alive for a couple of days, they would come and pick him up, but the outlook was bleak: the specialist said that out of 30 moorhen chicks he’d tried to rescue, only one had survived.

We somehow needed to reunite him with his parents, but how to do it? Despite nesting in such close proximity to our house, the moorhen parents are wary of us. They often fly away when we enter the garden. We couldn’t just take Little Mo outside and thrust him in their direction. We weren’t even sure if they would return to the nest if he was no longer there.

We were relieved when the mother returned later that evening, but my first attempt to reunite them was a blundering failure. We had to choose the right moment, when we weren’t too close to scare the parents away, but they were close enough to hear Little Mo’s calls. I waited until the mother left the nest, then I went outside and popped him back in it. There were still two eggs in the nest, so perhaps the parents would think he was another hatchling?

It seemed to work. The parents returned and called out to Little Mo to entice him down. But when he fell out of the nest and landed prostrate on the path beneath, he didn’t move. This time, the parents made no attempt to help him up and encourage him out of the garden. They walked away and left him lying there.

‘Oh, my god, he’s dead,’ Edita said.

After a few minutes, Little Mo’s head began twitching and we realised he was still alive, but he was cold and tired. Edita brought him back inside to warm him up again.

For the first 24 hours of his life, Little Mo lived in a box in our porch, with food and water and soft wool to keep him warm. Gradually his energy returned. He squeaked constantly and jumped at the side of the box, desperate to get out. Edita persuaded him to eat more by holding him in her hand, but we wondered if this would make it harder for him to reintegrate with his parents.

Then on the second evening, a miracle happened. I was sitting in the garden, reading my book, when I saw the moorhen jump out of the nest and fly up onto the ridge of the house. A wood pigeon was perching there, and the moorhen squawked at it, trying to scare it away. Wood pigeons are large and aggressive creatures that constantly bully the other birds in our garden. The moorhen was slightly smaller than the wood pigeon, but it made a brave attempt to drive it away.

Then I saw Edita beckoning me from the porch, where she was looking after Little Mo.

‘The mother is trying to talk to him,’ she said when I joined her. ‘I think she might take him back.’

Edita took Little Mo outside and placed him on a patch of lawn beneath the nest. We watched in a crescendo of excitement as the mother returned and tried to encourage Little Mo across the garden to the road. It was a struggle, but little by little the two of them made progress, as this video shows.

Watch on YouTube

But then, disaster. For a second time, Little Mo took the wrong route and tumbled into a dip beneath the plant pots where he rolled on his back. He struggled to his feet, crawled a few inches more, then collapsed between two pots in a position where his mother couldn’t reach him. The mother stayed for a few minutes, but it was no use, and once again she abandoned him to his fate.

This time he was hidden away from predators and we could leave him lying there for longer, but eventually we had to accept the inevitable – he was only halfway across the garden and it had taken him an age to get that far. Once outside the garden, he had to cross the road and crawl along the hedge behind the shed to get to the river. He was cold and exhausted, and it wasn’t going to happen.

Edita took him back inside. Again he was cold and hardly moving, but he revived and resumed his squeaking once Edita had warmed him up again.

The next day we took him out of the box and let him walk around the porch. He seemed to be full of energy, but each time we took him outside to reunite him with his parents, he just lay in the grass, squeaking pathetically. The parents were no longer responding, and he didn’t know where to go.

Still he might have survived if only we could feed him, but it was becoming an impossible task. Edita devised a novel method which involved squeezing liquid food through a hole in a plastic bag. It was more effective, but it took such a lot of effort. It was Monday and we were at our desks working for most of the day. We couldn’t give him the attention that he needed.

By Monday evening, it was clear that we had done all we could for Little Mo. Without his parents or the ability to feed, he wasn’t going to survive. We still had the option of giving him into the hands of the animal rescue specialist if he survived until the morning, but he was slowly starving and it seemed that there were kinder alternatives.

Probably the kindest thing we could have done for Little Mo was to knock him on the head and put him out of his misery, but after all the love and attention we had given him, neither of us could bring ourselves to deliver a fatal blow.

Little Mo settles into his final resting place among the reeds
Little Mo settles into his final resting place among the reeds

Moorhens are born to live much of their lives in water, but Little Mo hadn’t seen the river in his 48 short hours of life. So we carried him down to a secluded patch of reeds on a bank beside the river and said our goodbyes. He was squeaking pathetically, but it seemed the kindest thing we could do for him. He could explore the river bank in his final moments of life or go for a swim. And if a predator took him, then at least it would be a quicker end than if he slowly starved in our hands.

But maybe, just maybe, he found the other moorhen nest down in the reeds and was reunited with his family…

When we looked in that patch of reeds the following morning, Little Mo was no longer there.

The moral of this story is the same one everybody tells you: don’t interfere with nature. If a newly hatched chick comes towards you, it may be tempting to give it a little tickle, but avoid the urge and get the hell out of there so that its mother will come to find it.

And if you’re thinking of rescuing a moorhen chick, a word of caution: it’s emotionally draining and from my brief experience, you might have more success laying an egg.

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2 thoughts on “The sorrowful tale of Little Mo the moorhen chick

  • July 8, 2020 at 6:58 pm
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    A similar thing happened to me a month ago here in Arizona with a cactus wren, it was on the ground for a day hoping around round my yard searching for worms . I saw it again in the evening by my door being lethargic so I bundled it up in a shoe box and put some hot water in a plastic water bottle to keep it warm until I could get it to a rescue a few miles away. When I got their a quick examination revealed feral cat attacked it . I thought he was not injured the cat had indeed mauled it under its wing and there was nothing that could be done.

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