- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
A regular breeding resident and migrant, the Common Gallinule was a rare species during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).
Although the Common Gallinule is present in very small numbers throughout the eastern United States, it has a localized distribution. Larger populations are scattered across the lower Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada, portions of New England and the Maritime Provinces, and portions of the southeastern United States. It also occurs further south in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. Regardless of its broad distribution, in North America the gallinule only reaches high densities along the coastal waters of the southeastern United States (Figure 1).
Ranked a species of Moderate Concern by the North American Waterbird Conservation Plan and assigned a Continental Concern Score of 10/20 by Partners in Flight. The Common Gallinule is officially classified as a Special Concern Species in Minnesota and has been designated a Species in Greatest Conservation Need by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Throughout much of North America, the Common Gallinule is a short- to medium-distance migrant that winters in the southeastern United States. Most populations along the Gulf Coast of the United States and farther south are year-round residents.
Gleans food from the water surface and occasionally dives, feeding on the seeds and roots of aquatic vegetation and on small invertebrates.
A platform anchored to stems of emergent vegetation with a ramp leading down to the water’s surface; multiple nests are often constructed and may be used for resting by the adults and young broods.
As early as 1892, Hatch recognized that the Common Gallinule, then known as the Florida Gallinule, was a regular but uncommon breeding species in Minnesota. He described it as a common species, however, in the upper Minnesota River floodplains near Big Stone Lake and along the Red River. Roberts (1932) later described the species as a common summer resident in southern Minnesota with records as far north as Otter Tail and Becker Counties. Within this range, it could be found breeding “in all the larger sloughs and shallow, grass-grown lakes.” Roberts himself observed the birds in abundance at the Long Meadow Gun Club along the Minnesota River, writing in his journal:
It was no uncommon thing for ten or a dozen to be visible at the same time. . . . Their hen-like cackling, interspersed with loud, often shrill, cries usually kept up all through the night. Now and then something would happen to disturb the peace of the whole Gallinule community and the deafening clamor that ensued spread throughout the vast slough, revealing the great number of birds present.
At the time, however, nesting records only were available from Heron Lake in Jackson County (multiple nests in June 1919), Lake Shetek in Murray County (downy young), and Hennepin County (multiple reports of nests with eggs or recently hatched young). In addition, a nest was reported near Parker’s Prairie in Otter Tail County in 1903, but it lacked confirmation. The absence of any accounts in the Red River valley, west of Otter Tail County, calls into question Hatch’s assertion that the species was common in that area.
In subsequent years, nearly all reports of nesting pairs came from the southern half of the state until, in July of 1947, five young gallinules were observed in Pope County (Chambers 1947). Then, between the summers of 1964 and 1966, there were four reports of gallinules in the northern regions of the state: at the Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge in Marshall County in early August 1964 (Ellis 1965), in Stevens County in mid-May 1965 (Strubbe 1965), in Duluth in early May 1966 (Green 1966), and in the Mud Goose Wildlife Management Area in Cass County in mid-July 1966 (Egeland 1966).
When Green and Janssen (1975) provided an updated account of the species, they also described it as occurring primarily in the southern regions of the state. Nevertheless, noting several of the recent records summarized above, they suggested that it might actually breed much further north.
A few years later, however, Janssen (1987) reassessed the species’ status and concluded that numbers had significantly declined in recent years. The Common Gallinule was now restricted largely to the southeastern region of the state, from the Twin Cities metropolitan area south through the backwater marshes of the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Outside of this core region, sporadic reports continued from central Minnesota (Kandiyohi, Stearns, Todd, and Watonwan Counties) and as far north as Marshall County in the west and Aitkin County in the east. Since 1970, however, breeding had only been confirmed in 9 counties: Anoka, Brown, Chisago, Hennepin, Houston, Ramsey, Sherburne, Stearns, and Washington. Hertzel and Janssen (1998) later published a modified map of counties with breeding records, deleting Chisago County from Janssen’s 1987 map and adding Morrison County.
Since the Minnesota Biological Survey began its survey work in the early 1990s, the Common Gallinule appears to have become even rarer. Only 15 breeding season locations have been documented. The vast majority was reported from the Mississippi River valley from Wabasha County southward; the only northern record was from western Becker County (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2016).
During the MNBBA, the Common Gallinule was only reported a total of 35 times from 12 surveyed atlas blocks and 4 priority blocks. Breeding was confirmed in 7 blocks (Figures 2 and 3; Table 1). The species was restricted entirely to the southeastern quarter of the state, from Sherburne County west as far as McLeod, Sibley, Nicollet, and Blue Earth Counties and east to the Mississippi River. The species was reported in only 10 of Minnesota’s 87 counties and breeding was confirmed in 7 counties. Of these 7, 5 were new to the list published by Hertzel and Janssen (1998): Blue Earth, Dakota, McLeod, Nicollet, and Wabasha. Although the number of reports is limited, the MNBBA seems a fair representation of the species’ current breeding range. Finding secretive marsh birds is challenging; finding rare secretive marsh birds is particularly difficult. There may be a limited number of pairs nesting in suitable habitats elsewhere in the state, but the core of the Common Gallinule’s range in Minnesota is limited to east-central, south-central, and southeastern Minnesota.
During the twentieth century, the Common Gallinule gradually expanded its North American breeding range to the north and west. Reports from the Maritime Provinces in Canada, for example, were first documented in the 1960s, and reports from New Mexico were first documented in the late 1920s (Bannor and Kiviat 2002). Perhaps the reports in northern Minnesota in the mid-1960s corresponded with the northward range expansion documented elsewhere within the species’ breeding range. The retraction observed in Minnesota since the late twentieth century also has been observed in Ontario, where the gallinule nearly disappeared from the most northern portion of its range (Cadman et al. 2007). Elsewhere, local range contractions have largely been attributed to the loss of wetland habitat.
*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.