What is a Coot?

While many folks know the definition of a ‘coot’ to be a foolish or eccentric person, typically an old man, the formal usage of the word refers to an aquatic bird that is not only a common sight here in the Okanogan and Columbian Highlands, but all across North America, hence this species name American Coot.  These birds are members of the Rallidae family, which includes crakes, cranes, coots, gallinules and quite a few more. The American coot is also known as a mud hen and commonly mistaken for a duck. Comparing the two types of birds we see coots have broad, lobed scales on their lower legs and unique ‘toes’ unlike the ducks webbed feet.

The American coot is most often viewed on water where one will note this plump, dark bird with a sloping bill and rounded head. General coloring is gray to black with a bright white bill that extends onto the forehead as a horny shield. Look closely and you’ll see a small patch of red in the center of the forehead. On the rare occasion you observe a coot in flight or ashore note the tiny tail, short wings and large feet. The males and females of this species have similar appearances, although the male can be distinguished during breeding season by its aggressive displays of the large head plumage ruff.  A closer look at the coots feet and we see each one of this birds long toes has broad lobes of skin that help it kick through the water. The broad lobes fold back each time the bird lifts its foot, so it doesn’t impede walking on dry land, though it supports the bird’s weight on mucky ground. Newly hatched coots have nearly bald heads with sparse orange to red short plumage for the first couple of months.

Coots live near and on water, typically inhabiting wetlands and open waters of lakes and estuaries Frequently seen in groups called rafts or covers made up of birds of all ages. Coots intermix habitats with ducks, grebes, cranes, geese and most other aquatic birds.

These are migratory birds that occupy most of North America. The coot lives in the Pacific and southwestern United States and Mexico year-round and occupies more northeastern regions during the summer breeding season pushing up into northern Canada. The winter range extends throughout Central America.

A unique behavioral feature of the American coot is it’s floating nests, which are anchored to shore on reed or grass stems. Generally nest material is woven into a shallow basket with a hollowed interior lined with finer smooth material to hold the eggs. Within these nests the female coot lays a clutch of 8 to 12 eggs and diligently tends them throughout the brood.

Regarding coots the Cornell Lab of Ornithology states, “the ecological impact of common animals, like this ubiquitous water bird, can be impressive when you add it all up. One estimate from Back Bay, Virginia, suggested that the local coot population ate 216 tons (in dry weight) of vegetation per winter.”

The diverse diet of these water fowl contributes to their success at establishing a broad range of habitat.  Typically coots eat mainly aquatic plants including algae, duckweed, eelgrass, wild rice, sedges, hydrilla, wild celery, water lilies, cattails, and water milfoil. When they venture forth on dry land they also pick at terrestrial plants and sometimes eat grains. They’re not exclusively vegetarian as evident in that they eat insects (beetles, dragonflies, and others), crustaceans, snails, and small vertebrates such as tadpoles and salamanders.

Most of the wetlands, lakes and ponds with heavy stands of emergent aquatic vegetation along at least a portion of the shoreline will be home to the American coot in our highland area. Pack up a good pair of field glasses, a birding field guide and head out to view this notable and unique creature in its natural habitat…


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