The American Coot—Interesting Facts and Information - Owlcation - Education
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The American Coot—Interesting Facts and Information

I am a blogger from Southern Oklahoma who loves to write about nature and animals.

The American coot, swimming in Lake Murray, Oklahoma.

The American coot, swimming in Lake Murray, Oklahoma.

Just because a bird swims and dives in the water after food, doesn’t mean they are a duck! I learned something new after a camping trip to our nearby lake. What I thought was some type of duck, was no duck at all. This handsome water bird is the American Coot.

Taxonomy

The American Coot is often mistaken for a duck, but is actually more closely related to the shore birds such as the sand hill crane and the rail than it is to a duck. They are members of the family Rallidae, genus fulica, which comes from the Latin word for “coot”, in this case the species is americana.

Description

The American coot is a medium sized bird, sometimes referred to as a “mud hen”. They are 13 to 17 inches in length and 23 to 28 inches across the wings. Adult coots are a dark gray in color with short white bills that have a dark band at the tip. Their white “frontal shield” usually has a reddish brown spot near the top, just between their eyes. Their legs are a greenish-gray in color with large lobed toes. Males and females look alike, with the females being a bit smaller. They will weigh between 1 and 2 pounds.


Notice the stripe toward the end of the bill and hte red spot on the frontal shield.

Notice the stripe toward the end of the bill and hte red spot on the frontal shield.

Coots do not have webbed feet like ducks, they have large lobed toes which fold back as they step to help the when walking on dry land. You can see the large lobed toes of this juvenile coot. You can also see the frontal shield beginning to show up with the red spot barely visible. As this juvenile gets a little older, the frontal shield and beak will turn white. The black stripe will appear on it's beak and the red spot between the eyes will become much more visible.

Juvenile American Coot

Behavior

When they walk, they walk more like a chicken than waddle like a duck. They are very territorial when nesting and may fight over their nesting territory. When fighting, they will “rear up” and fight each other using their strong legs and large feet.

When trying to take of In flight, the American coot is rather clumsy. To get airborne, the have to basically “run” across the water for several yards while beating their wings. Their take off is rather slow and labored in appearance. Once in flight, they are as graceful and beautiful as any other water bird. In the water, since they do not have webbed feet, they propel themselves by “pumping” their heads back and forth. The coot would rather swim to avoid danger than to fly.

Lift Off!

American Coot "running" across the water, trying to take off in flight.

American Coot "running" across the water, trying to take off in flight.

Habitat

The American coot is a migratory bird that lives in wetlands and open bodies of water in North America. They inhabit the Pacific and southwestern part of the US and parts of Mexico year round. They can be found in the northeastern parts of the US during their summer breeding season. In winter, they can be found as far south as Panama. During migration, you may see large groups of coots possibly numbering up into the thousands.

They prefer fresh water habitats but can be found in salt water habitats in winter months. The American coot normally inhabits a variety of freshwater wetlands such as swamps, marshes and lakes. They prefer heavy stands of aquatic vegetation with a little depth to the water.

An American coot range map.

An American coot range map.

American Coot Swimming in Lake

American Coot Swimming in Lake

Diet

The American Coot will dive for food, such as small fish, but they prefer to forage on plant material. Their main diet consists of algae and aquatic plants such as algae, waterlilies, and cattails and will sometimes eat grains or leaves from oak, elm and cypress trees. They will also eat small crustaceans, snails, salamanders and tadpoles. They also enjoy dining on the occasional insect such as beetles, dragonflies and other water insects when available.

Nesting

The nest is built by both the female and the male and is usually a floating nest built of dead cattails and reeds. They will normally builds 3 nests during a season. The first is a floating platform nest used for roosting. The second is the egg nest and a third is used as a brood nest. Their mating season is between May and June. The American Coots are monogamous and mate for life. The female will build a floating nest usually hidden among tall water reeds and lay between 8 and 12 eggs. Both sexes will incubate the eggs which are a pinkish or buff gray in color with specks of dark brown or purple.

At hatching, the chicks are already covered in down and ready to leave the nest within about 6 hours of hatching. The young chicks have orange tipped plumes covering their neck and head. These are called “chick ornaments”. Female coots will preferentially feed the young with the brightest plume feathers or “chick ornaments”. This has been proven by researchers clipping some chick’s plumes and finding that the parents preferentially feed the brightest colored chicks first.

Notice the bright orange plumage of the chick's head and neck,

Notice the bright orange plumage of the chick's head and neck,

Predators

Because the American coot’s nests are generally floating nests hidden among the reeds they are not as easily reached by land predators. The main predators are other birds, such as crows, great horned owls, gulls, and eagles. Coots may comprise approximately 80% of the bald eagle’s diet. The oldest know coot lived to be a little over 24 years old.

I hope you have enjoyed learning more about the American Coot. Now the next time I see a bird floating and diving for food, I won’t be so quick to call it a duck!

Below is a short slide show I created for your enjoyment.

American Coot at Lake Murray, Oklahoma

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© 2015 Sheila Brown

Comments

Sheila Brown (author) from Southern Oklahoma on March 05, 2020:

You are very welcome, Peggy! Thank you for reading and your kind comment! :)

Sheila Brown (author) from Southern Oklahoma on March 05, 2020:

Thank you, Eiddwen. I am so glad you enjoyed my hub!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 24, 2020:

We have many American coots in our area. At first, I thought that they were a type of duck, but learned otherwise. I did not know that they mated for life or had floating nests. Thanks for writing about them.

Eiddwen from Wales on February 23, 2020:

A very well written and interesting hub. I love anything to do with nature and thoroughly enjoyed this one.

Sheila Brown (author) from Southern Oklahoma on May 23, 2016:

Thank you, I'm so glad you enjoyed my hub! :)

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on February 24, 2016:

A beautiful hub on this topic. Nature is certainly a great pass time.

Sheila Brown (author) from Southern Oklahoma on February 03, 2016:

Thank you, Audrey! Birds are amazing and the more I watch them, the more I want to learn about them. :)

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on January 22, 2016:

Yes, Audrey, they are remarkable animals. If one has the ability to read their actions, they are even more interesting.

Audrey Howitt from California on January 22, 2016:

Very cool! Birds are amazing!

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on December 20, 2015:

How interesting, Sheila. I had seen photos of them but never stopped to read. Glad I did this time as I had no idea....I would have mistaken them for a duck as well. Look at those feet!!!! O my...

Thanks for sharing...Angels are on the way along with wishes for a lovely Christmas and a blessed New Year ps

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on December 15, 2015:

You pretty much summed it up here. Nothing like a coot!

Sheila Brown (author) from Southern Oklahoma on December 15, 2015:

Thank you, Shauna! I'm glad you enjoyed my hub. I must have screwed something up, as the only picture that is mine is the first one and one in the middle. The rest of them are from Creative Commons. I will have to go back and fix the "credits". Thank you for stopping by and you kind comment! I always enjoy hearing from you! :)

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on December 14, 2015:

Sheila, I must admit, I never knew a coot was anything but an ornery old codger!

These birds are quite unique. Their feet are bizarre to say the least! This article is very interesting, especially with regard to their nesting habits and how young the hatchlings are when they leave the nest. You managed to take some awesome photos of the American Coot. Thank you!

Sheila Brown (author) from Southern Oklahoma on December 11, 2015:

Thank you, Helga! I appreciate you stopping by and commenting! :)

Sheila Brown (author) from Southern Oklahoma on December 11, 2015:

Thank you, Alicia! I'm glad you enjoyed my hub! :)

Sheila Brown (author) from Southern Oklahoma on December 11, 2015:

I had not thought about someone referring to someone else as an old coot. I wonder if there is a connection. Thanks for stopping by! :)

FlourishAnyway from USA on December 10, 2015:

Interesting ! Never knew any of this. Wonder about the connection to calling someone an ole coor.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on December 10, 2015:

Thanks for sharing the interesting information and photos, Sheila. I love to watch American coots where I live. I enjoyed reading about them very much.

Helga Silva from USA on December 10, 2015:

Great hub! Thanks for sharing.