Window on Nature
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
Just about anyone who has spent an hour at a lake, stream, or pond has seen the American coot (Fulica americana). These all-terrain, duck-like birds can be found throughout most of North America. Coots of the northern regions, however, migrate south for the winter. Just call them snowbirds “” after all, that’s where human travelers got the name.
Whether coots “” part of the rail family “” migrate or remain in one place year-round, spring always ushers in the fighting season. That’s when these birds, which typically stay together in peaceful flocks, begin to display their aggression by fighting each other savagely. Gradually the large battles cease as each male establishes his right to an area near the shoreline. His sense of ownership is strong and he guards his territory fiercely, driving off other male coots as well as any ducks that might trespass.
Observers are sometimes shocked to see two male coots paddling toward each other with hostile intent, their heads stretched out and their bills skimming the water surface. The actual fighting begins when the birds begin lashing out with their white bills. Then, tipping backward, they strike with their feet. A coot’s feet are quite large and equipped with long, sharp claws designed to do considerable damage. The one attacked tries to ward off the blows by seizing the feet of his antagonist with his own. Then, with the two sitting on their rears with legs entangled, they lash out savagely with their bills. If the females decide to take part in the squabble, there can be three or four birds engaged at the same time.
When the skirmish ends and the vanquished retreats, it’s courtship time. This phase is still action-packed. The male rushes after the female, flapping his wings with such speed that he can literally paddle over the surface of the water. The subject of his affection paddles off in the same manner, some 10 feet ahead of him. But her reluctance is a sham “” she’d be terribly disappointed if the male were to accept her rebuff.
Once paired, the coots continue their dance. The pair often swims toward one another with their heads down and extended on the water as they call “kuk kuk kuk kuk.” While the courtship begins in the water, it ends on land.
Males and females work together to build the nest. Coot nests are usually well hidden in the bulrushes, flags, or cattails along the shoreline, but one occasionally can be seen in open water. Coots aren’t choosy about building materials, as long as there is plenty of it to weave a substantial basket approximately 14 inches across with a rim that stands 8 inches above the waterline. In the center of the nest is an inner cavity just large enough to hold the clutch of eight to 12 eggs. Then, seeing to the comfort of their future chicks, the coots line the cavity with smooth materials such as cattail or cottonwood fluff. That’s the average nest, but we can’t resist including a couple of exceptions we’ve read about. About a century ago, Robert B. Rockwell described seeing a coot nest “fully two feet above the ground on a platform of dead cattails, with a neat runway leading up to it.” How about this one: the nest was “fully four feet above ground in the lower branches of an apple tree, the water of the lake having receded that much after flooding an orchard.”
You would expect the coot nest to be fully built before the female starts laying her eggs, but such is not the case. Frequently a coot will lay her first couple of eggs on what is merely a floating platform, and then lay additional eggs as the nest is completed.
Both the male and female incubate the eggs. When not building or incubating, the male stands guard nearby to drive off any bird, rodent, dog, or human that poses a threat. When the female is on her nest, the male guards her as if she were queen of the coot realm. His behavior is calculated to intimidate every living thing that can move. Should he spot a potential predator, he rises on the water surface, treading heavily for a few strokes, roiling the water, and doing a back flip that propels him backward for a foot or more. Nearly always, this behavior has the intended effect: to frighten away the intruder.
The incubation period is approximately 23 days. Since eggs are laid even before the nest is finished, a chick appears each day during the hatching period. Coot young are precocial, meaning they are able to leave the nest soon after hatching and begin swimming around. By the time a chick is just a few days old, it can swim and dive almost as well as its parents. The youngster’s ability is, no doubt, related to its huge feet. Coot feet are well-designed for their job, having toes for walking on land and lobes for paddling in water.
A newly emerged coot chick fits the old saying, “He’s so ugly he’s cute.” Imagine a tiny black ball with a bald, orange-red head and neck. Whereas it is born with big feet and legs, other parts of its body won’t catch up until later. For example, the plumage doesn’t appear until the youngster is about four weeks old and one-third grown. Adult coots lack the showy beauty of ducks and geese, dressed as they are in black feathers, with greenish-yellow legs, a black head, and a white bill.
Coots aren’t picky about what they eat but dine on whatever is available in various seasons. They find most of it underwater in the form of leaves, fronds, seeds, and roots of aquatic vegetation, along with small fish, tadpoles, worms, and water bugs. They’re good divers, able to submerge as deep as 20 feet. Coots also have been seen pirating plants right from the mouths of diving ducks.
Finally, a few words about coot language. They make a variety of grunting, croaking, and squawking sounds, and are responsible for most of the noise coming from their watery world. Day or night you’ll hear the “coo-coo-coo-coo-coo.” And then there are the coughing sounds, froglike plunks, and the loud “kuk-kawk-kuk, kuk-kawk-kuk” sound of a dull saw. So, keep your ears open for the sounds of the loudest bird in the marsh.