The American Coot—Interesting Facts and Information
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Where You Familiar With the American Coot Prior to This Article?
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