Birds – Coots

We now come to the Coots, which are distinguished, as before mentioned, by the broadly lobed toes which adapt them to a more aquatic life than the others. Of the dozen species known, all belong to the genus Fulica, and may be distinguished by the uniform slaty or plumbeous color, the head and neck being darker, almost black in the adults, the edge of the wing whitish, and the bill usually whitish or yellowish. Although two thirds of the species are natives of the New World, only one, the American Coot (F. americana), is found in North America proper, though the European species (F. atra) is accidental in Greenland. Our Coot is a bird from thirteen to sixteen inches long and has the bill milk-white, with the terminal portion and the frontal shield dark brown. It is found throughout the whole of North and middle America and most of the West Indies, and in many places is very abundant, going about usually in small parties, occasionally in flocks of large size. They swim well and accompany the motion of the feet by a bobbing motion of the head and neck. They are very noisy birds, having a variety of loud, cackling notes which are frequently uttered. Dr. B. W. Evermann has recently given a good account of their feeding habits as observed on Lake Maxinkuckee, Indiana. They arrived from the North in great numbers early in September and were soon found over all parts of the lake, and he regards them as being as thoroughly aquatic as any species of Duck, swimming and diving with equal facility. They were not observed walking on the shore, but spent the time in relatively shallow water some distance out. They were found at first to be feeding exclusively on the tender winter buds of the wild celery (Vallisneria spiralis), which they secured by diving in water which varied in depth from four to twenty-five feet, preferably between four and eighteen feet. Later when the supply of winter buds gave out they ate the leaves and roots of the wild celery, as well as numerous other aquatic plants. Dr. Evermann states that “the Coot dives with greater abruptness than any Duck I have observed. The body turns very quickly and is usually in a nearly vertical position before entirely submerged. . . . The longest time any individual was observed to remain under water was sixteen seconds, and the usual time in water four to ten feet deep was about nine seconds.” After feeding on the wild celery the Coot is regarded by Dr. Evermann as the equal of the celebrated Canvas-back Duck as a table bird. At other times they feed on crustaceans, worms, insects, and seeds, and are not then as fine flavored. The nest of this species is made of reeds and grasses and is placed among the reeds of fresh-water marshes. The eggs are from eight to fifteen in number, pale huffy white, thickly speckled with fine spots of dark brown.

To give a slight idea of the other species we may mention briefly the three found in Argentina. The Red-gartered Coot (F. armillata), so named on account of the bright red naked portion of the leg above the foot, has the bill yellow with red basal spots, and the frontal shield yellow, margined with red. The Yellow-billed Coot (F. lencoptera) may be known by the yellow bill and shield, and the Red-fronted Coot (F. rufifrons) by the bright scarlet bill and shield.

A single fossil Coot has been described from Pleistocene beds on the Chatham Islands, and a species of large size (Leguatia gigantea) has become extinct on Mauritius.