Birds – American Coot

(Fulica americana)


Length—14 to 16 inches.

Male and Female—General color slate; very dark on head and neck, lighter on under parts; edge of wing, tips of secondaries, and space below tail, white. Bill ivory white; two brownish spots near tip, the same shade as the horny plate on front of head, which is a characteristic mark of both gallinules and coots. Legs and feet pale green, the latter with scalloped lobes.

Range—North America at large, from Greenland and Alaska to the West Indies and Central America; nesting throughout range, but more rarely on Atlantic coast.

Season—Resident in the south; chiefly a spring and autumn migrant at the north, April, May; September to November.

More aquatic than any of its kin, the coot delights in the swimming and diving feats of a grebe, and appears to be the connecting link between the swimmers, with whom it was formerly classed, owing to its lobed toes. What these toes lack in width is amply made up in length, the fact that makes the bird so expert in the water and correspondingly awkward when it runs over the land, where, however, it spends very little time. It is the horny frontal plate, taken with the general resemblance in structure to the gallinules, that places the coot in their class.

A lake or quiet river surrounded by large marshy tracts where sluggish streams meander, bringing down into deeper water wild grain and seeds, the larvae of insects, fish spawn, snails, worms, and vegetable matter, makes the ideal home of this duck-like bird. ” I come from the haunts of coot and hern,” the song of Tennyson’s brook, calls up a picture of the home that needs no enlarging. The coot dives for food to great depths, sometimes sinking grebe fashion, and disappearing to parts unknown by a long swim under water with the help of both wings and feet. Swimming on the surface, the bird has a funny habit of bobbing its head in unison with the strokes given in the stern by its twin screws.

A large amount of gravel seems necessary to help digest the quantity of grain swallowed, and for this a flock of coots must sometimes leave the muddy region of the lake. Rising from the surface, they flutter just above it, pattering along for a distance, their distended feet striking the water constantly, until sufficient momentum is gained to spring into the air and trust to wing power alone. This pattering noise and splashing, often heard when the coots cannot be seen for the tall sedges that screen them, is characteristic of several of the ducks also, and suggests the notion that the trick may have been learned from them; for in southern waters, at least, coots and ducks often resort to the same lakes ;—that is, when the latter refuse to be driven off. At no time of the year silent birds, often incessant chatterers, it is during the nesting season that the coots break out into shrill, high-pitched, noisy cacklings, which the slightest disturbance calls forth. Jealous, unwilling to permit alien swimmers in their neighborhood, sociable, but without any great love of kin or kind to mellow their dispositions or their voices, they make their neighborhood lively. But coots are shy of men, albeit the young and old alike have flesh no one not starving could eat; and they usually live in some inaccessible pond or swamp, especially at the nesting season. As night approaches, they lose much of the timidity which keeps them concealed and silent the greater part of the day.

In May a nest has been built by first trampling down the rushes and weed stalks, then more of the same material is used for an exterior and finer grasses for a lining of the crib which toward the end of the month contains from eight to fifteen yellowish white eggs sprinkled over with brownish spots, chiefly around the larger end. Let no other bird dare show its head in the immediate neighborhood of a pair of nesting coots. They will tolerate no neighbors then, gregarious as they are at other seasons. After three weeks of close confinement the mother bird leads her large brood to water, where the chicks swim and dive almost from the beginning, although keeping close enough to their patient teacher to hide under her wings on the first shrill alarm cry from the father, ever on guard. Hawks from above and pickerel and turtles from below find no fault, as men do, with the flavor of young coots. But soon the fledgelings become quite independent, leaving the parents free to devote their attention to another brood. Usually the flock of migrating coots that we see in autumn is only a large family party.