Summit Outside: The awkward, but endearing coot
November 4, 2012
Is it a bird, a duck, a cross between a duck, bird and chicken? On land coots look somewhat comical, especially how they walk; sort of like a cross between a chicken and a duck.
One close encounter with a coot occurred when I lived on a salt estuary in New Jersey. I looked out the window and a coot was strutting down the driveway. All of a sudden one of my cats came streaking down the driveway, grabbed the coot and ran with it into the garage to be followed by me screaming at the top of my lungs: “let it go!!!” My cat let go, it ran under the car and eventually out of the garage and took off. I never saw another coot in my driveway again. Since then, I have seen rafts of them on numerous bodies of water, including occasionally on Dillon Reservoir.
The Cajun word for coot is “pouldeau,” means “water hen.” Coot is used sometimes in Cajun cuisine, as an ingredient for gumbos. The coot is also called “marsh hen” and it probably depicts the hen-like way in their heads bob when they walk or swim.
Coot in 15th century Middle English is “coote” and may originate from the sound of the call the coot makes; a high-pitched squeaking honk similar to that of a goose, but more hollow sounding.
Coots are medium-sized water birds, 13-17 inches in length with a wing span of 23-28 inches. They are members of the rail family. They are mostly dark grey and black, but have prominent frontal shields, with a reddish-brown spot near the top of the bill between the eyes, and a short thick white bill. Many, but not all, have white feathers under the tail.
Their legs are yellowish, with lobed toes in place of webbed feet. The featherless shield gave rise to the expression “as bald as a coot.”
American coots are frequently seen swimming in open water diving for food, but they can also forage on land. They can walk and run vigorously on strong legs, and have long toes that are well-adapted to soft, uneven surfaces.
They have short, rounded wings, and appear to be weak fliers, though northern species can cover long distances. They require a great deal of effort to become airborne, pedaling across the water with its feet before lifting off.
Birds from temperate North America east of the Rocky Mountains migrate to southern United States. They are often a year-round resident where water does not freeze in winter.
Outside the breeding season, particularly in winter, American coots gather together in large flocks in shallow, vegetated lakes.
Groups of coots are called covers, coverts or rafts.
Coots eat mainly plant material, but also small animals and eggs.
Coots mate for life and have a long courtship period which is characterized by billing, bowing and nibbling.
Males generally initiate billing, which is the touching of bills between individuals. As the pair bonds, both males and females will initiate billing only with each other and not other males or females. After a pair bond is cemented, the mating pair looks for a territory to build a nest.
Since American coots build on the water, their structures disintegrate easily. Egg and brood nests are actually elaborate rafts, and must be constantly added to in order to stay afloat. Females typically do the most work while building.
Coots will build multiple structures during a single breeding season. There are three general types of structures: display platforms, egg nests and brood nests.
Display platforms are used as roosting sites and are left to decompose after mating.
Egg nests are typically 12 inches in diameter with a 12-15 inch ramp. Coots may build several egg nests before selecting one to lay their eggs in.
Brood nests are nests that are either newly constructed or have simply been converted from old egg nests, and are simply larger egg nests.
Females deposit one egg a day between sunset and midnight. Early season nests have an average of nine eggs per clutch while late clutches have fewer eggs.
Male and female coots share incubation responsibility, but males do most of the work during the 21-day incubation period.
Coots may eventually raise only two or three out of nine fledglings. Some coot parents have difficulty feeding a large family of fledglings on the tiny shrimp and insects that they collect. After a few days they may start attacking their own chicks when they beg for food. The weaker chicks eventually give up begging and die.
Coots are fairly aggressive in defense of their eggs and, in protecting their nesting habitat. This helps reduce losses of eggs and young to many predators. Crows, magpies and terns can sometime steal eggs. Mammalian predators are not too common, but include foxes, coyotes, skunks and raccoons. Nests are regularly destroyed by muskrats. Regular, non-nesting-season predators include great horned owls, northern harriers, eagles,= and gulls. Coots may locally comprise more than 80 percent of the diet of bald eagles.
A characteristic of the coot is its awkwardness. Its flight is very slow and sluggish, and its toes are fringed by a lobed membrane that helps it swim and walk over marshes, but the membrane also makes the bird move clumsily. Because of that awkwardness, the coot has long been associated with stupidity.
A figurative term for a simpleton or a foolish person is “coot.” The term “old coot” is used in the English language to mean an eccentric or crotchety person, especially an eccentric old man.
Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology at Rutgers University.