Shepherd's (lat. Rallidae) is a large family of small and medium-sized birds from the order crane-like.
The size and weight varies from 12-13 cm and 40 g in the white-winged rat (Porzana exquisitus) to 59-63 cm and 2-3.2 kg in the giant coot (Fulica gigantea) and takahe (Porphyrio mantelli).
Almost all birds of this family live near water bodies and in wetlands, among the exceptions is the corncrake, which nests in meadows, arable lands and other open landscapes.
Typical representatives of this family settle among the dense vegetation of the lower layer along the shores of lakes and rivers or in swamps. Few comparatively primitive species inhabit tropical rainforests. In particular, thickets of reeds, sedges or reeds can be distinguished from favorite habitats. In general, birds of this family lead a rather secretive, often nocturnal or crepuscular lifestyle, avoid open spaces and are difficult to see.
Most species run quickly and confidently on soft, muddy soil thanks to their strong legs with long toes that reduce the stress on the ground. Coots have scalloped swimming blades on their feet on the sides of the toes, which indicates its predominantly aquatic lifestyle. Shepherd's wings, as a rule, are short and rounded; birds rarely fly, but if necessary, they are able to overcome a considerable distance. The species that live on the islands often stop flying altogether, and for this reason, many of them are now extinct, as they were unable to defend against ground enemies such as cats, rats and pigs.
As a rule, the body of shepherds is slightly flattened from the sides - this, as well as the more flexible spine in comparison with other birds, allows them to maneuver better in thickets of reeds or other dense coastal vegetation. The tails of all bird species are short and soft, usually raised upward, almost all of them have a white undertail. A white, orange or red shield can often be seen on the forehead, which protects the bird's head from injury. The plumage is soft and loose, molting occurs twice a year - during the full postnuptial period, the ability to fly is temporarily lost. Sexual dimorphism (visible differences between the sexes) is not pronounced in most (with the exception of four) species, except that males are slightly larger than females. A characteristic feature of the family is the uniform twitching of the tail and shaking of the head when walking and while swimming.
Nighttime activity and limited visibility in thickets led to the fact that these birds have a well-developed vocal communication with each other. These are quite noisy birds, their varied and not always euphonious singing is well heard outside of their habitats. Shepherds are omnivorous birds that feed on both plant and animal food, sometimes hunt for other birds and their eggs, reptiles, amphibians, fish and small rodents. In general, animal food is typical for small species, and vegetable food for large species, although there are exceptions.
Shepherd chicks - brood or semi-brood type, having hatched, they do not linger in the nest for a long time. After a day or two, and in large species after 3-4 days, the female begins to take the chicks for a walk, each time returning back. At first, only the mother takes care of the chicks, and the father is engaged in the production of food. Subsequently, both parents participate in the brood of chicks.
Shepherds are widespread throughout the world, absent only in the arctic and subarctic regions, Antarctica and large deserts. The most biodiversity is observed in the tropics and subtropics, in the taiga zone of the northern hemisphere and on the subarctic islands, only a few species are seen. A distinctive feature of shepherds is their ability to penetrate even the most remote islands, despite the fact that they fly rarely and badly.
On the territory of Russia, shepherds are represented by 14 species from 9 genera, 11 of which nest. There are reports of single visits from the territory of North America of the Carolina carolina (Porzana carolina). Cases of nesting of the horned moorhen (Gallicrex cinerea) and white-chested crabs are still considered unproven. The Red Data Book of Russia includes the species of horned moorhen, sultan (Porphyrio porphyrio) and red-footed carrion (Porzana fusca).