February can be a great month to observe American Coots throughout much of the country. American Coots are gregarious, energetic birds, and if you watch a flock long enough, you are likely to see and hear some of their raucous and quarrelsome behavior, which can often be far more entertaining than anything on television. I photographed three coots fighting over a potential mate (or perhaps just a funny look?) four years ago this month.
It all started with a respectful bow, with the two coots flattening their crowns, perhaps signifying some sort of agreement to the terms of engagement:
This was quickly followed by an frenetic eruption of coots and water flying every which way --clearly, that third coot in the middle was not actually that interested in battling:
Before I could really process everything that unfolded before my eyes, it was all over, as signified by the post-fight bow, as outlined in section 5.4.2 of international coot law:
It appears the middle coot switched allegiance from the coot on the left to the coot on the right. Other than that, I had no idea to determine who actually won this epic battle. Of course, it occurred to me that these coots may have actually been rehearsing for upcoming roles in a Quentin Tarantino movie -- the scene was that surreal and over-the-top. Click here to see all of my photos of the entire fight sequence
So besides being entertaining duck-like creatures, what are American Coots? They belong to the Rallidae family, meaning they are lumped together with rails and gallinules. Before I tell you about coots, I want to discuss their cousins.
Rails, such as the Sora and Virginia Rail, are like chickens of the marsh. They have long, chicken-like feet, and are more often heard than seen. Here is a King Rail that I photographed at San Bernard NWR in Texas:
And here is a smaller cousin of the King Rail, a Virginia Rail that I photographed in the same wetland where the infamous coot battle of February 2010 took place:
Rails are rather secretive creatures. They often compress themselves laterally as they sneak between the marsh grasses (and are the "rail" behind the "thin as a rail" saying). So those photos above are a bit misleading. A more typical good view of a Virginia Rail is something along these lines:
But if you do find a rail, change your plans and hang around for a while. Eventually, it might reveal itself a bit more, and potentially come out into the open, usually for all of 3 seconds, in a dead sprint away from the nearest human eye:
And if you get real lucky, it might reveal its nest:
What nest, you ask? It's that little cup like thing in the middle bottom of the photo, made out of brown grasses, topped off with green vegetation. This nest was so close to the road at Ridgefield NWR that I photographed it from my car window.
The rail family includes another species that is a bit more outgoing than its cousins - the Sora. Here's a Sora gathering food, showing off its long, chicken-like legs and toes:
Wait a minute! Why would a Sora be busy gathering food out in the open right in front of a person? It must either be extremely hungry, or it is feeding babies:
One neat thing about rails (and gallinules and coots) is that their babies tend to be adorable fuzzballs. Both Sora and Virginia Rail babies are covered with black feathers, and can be hard to distinguish when mom or dad are not nearby. But one does not need to know which species they are to enjoy their beauty. Of course, they are usually not very far from their parent, and they behave very similar to human teenagers, always screaming, "feed me!" (Am I the only one who looks at my children and sees baby birds screaming for food?)
Gallinules are similar to rails, except they tend to come out into the open more, and can often be seen swimming the water. Like rails, gallinules have chicken-like legs and feet, but they resemble coots far more than they resemble rails. Two species of gallinules occur in the US -- Common and Purple. Below are several photographs of Common Gallinules (formerly conspecific with the Common Moorhen, until 2011, when it was split out as a separate species), all taken in Texas. Here's one in open water, looking a lot like a colorful coot:
And here's one feeding at the water's edge, showing off its long, chicken-like legs:
And here's one swimming in... well, I'm not sure what to call that, but it made a neat photo (and provided great cover for the alligators!):
And here's one walking on land, completely in the open, looking for food, utterly unconcerned by that humongous eyeball (my lens) staring right at it:
Oh, how I would love to share with you some photos of Purple Gallinules, but I do not have any. The last ones I saw were in Texas, but they were less than cooperative for photos, and I was still early in my photography career. I once held a Purple Gallinule in my hand, but that was a dead bird I found in the winter ice on the shore of Lake Michigan, a very rare specimen for Chicago that quickly ended up at Chicago's Field Museum (of natural history). I believe Anahuac NWR is calling my name once again...
So, now on to the star of the show, or at least this blog entry -- the American Coot:
Many people think of the coot as being a duck, which is completely understandable. In my mind, coots seem far removed from rails, and are more like a cross between gallinules and ducks. (Now you see why I spent all that time on rails and gallinules.) Based on habits and appearance when in water, it is hard to believe that coots are more related to cranes than Mallards, but, alas, the experts tell us they are.
American Coots tend to form large flocks, they swim out on the open water, and they are hardly secretive. They have lobed feet -- a cross between the chicken like feet of rails and the webbed feet of ducks. Coots need a runway to take off. As a result, when freezes suddenly hit an area, coots may end up in a pond that is too small to facilitate take-offs, much to the delight of Bald Eagles, which have been known to hang out at such places until the supply of coots runs out. Coots can dive to evade predators, but if they keep coming back up for air in the same exact spot, the predator usually wins. Here's a coot showing off its beautiful lobed feet:
Here's what they look like when they are taking-off -- it is about as elegant as a fully-loaded military transport plane, where you just hope it can get enough speed to become airborne:
And here's what a flock looks like as it stands on ice around the last of the remaining open water, hoping that nearby predators won't notice the lack of escape routes:
I suspect coots rarely take flight to evade predators such as Bald Eagles and Red-tailed Hawks, as coots are clumsy flyers. On numerous occasions, I have seen them dive underwater repeatedly, popping up in different locations, making it hard for the predators to predict the coot's next move. So while a small amount of open water, such as what is shown, restricts coots from taking flight, the main reason it exposes them to predation is due to the relatively small area in which a large number of coots would need to submerge themselves in order to escape. And when coots re-emerge, they don't appear slowly -- they tend to pop up rather suddenly and rather buoyantly, much like an empty, upside down water bottle would. Another look at those cool feet, which are often the only thing left after an eagle eats a coot:
Many years ago, in the middle of a Chicago winter, I saw a Snowy Owl wake up, stretch, cough up a pellet, fly over to a small patch of open water, pluck off a coot, and enjoy its first meal of the night, all in a matter of 15 minutes or so. At the time, I wondered if the strategy of the American Coot was to breed like mad, hoping that numbers alone will ensure their survival as a species. Most times I see them now, I still wonder that, because coots seem to end up in dangerous situations far more often than most other denizens of wetlands. In addition to the issue of coots remaining in areas without sufficient open water, many times I've had to stop my car to allow a massive flock of coots cross the road, all under the watchful eye of some raptor, such as a Bald Eagle or Red-tailed Hawk. (Hmm, I'll take the one on the left, fifth from the back...).
Fortunately, American Coots lay between 2 and 17 eggs per clutch, with most clutches having between 8 and 12 eggs. In addition, coots will have multiple clutches per year. Their nest is a floating platform, usually anchored to upright stalks. Coots will build many floating platforms, choose one to use as a nest, and then expand upon it. Coot babies, as with rail babies, are adorable, such as this one being fed by its parent - note the wings out and mouth open, a behavior exhibited by many species of birds that roughly translates into "Feed Me!":
Back to my theory of coots not necessarily being the brightest of birds, here's one appearing to eat the head of its baby. It did not.
In the photo below, a baby coot watches its parent dive for food. Unlike Pied-billed Grebes, which sometimes just sink into the depths, coots have a rather awkward, buoyant approach to getting underwater. Their return to the surface is equally buoyant and entertaining. It's almost as if they are full of air, can't expel it, and must work against physics to stay submerged. Finally, they succumb to the buoyancy of the air, and pop out of the water as if being shot from a cannon. A really small cannon. Ok, it is more like what happens when you submerge a beach ball underwater, and then let it go.
Eventually, the babies must molt and grow into adults. Along the way, they take on an appearance that almost appears to be that of a different species:
But their lanky legs and feet are there to give away their identity:
As soon as they are in the water, though, those long legs and lobed feet are out of sight:
Another interesting characteristic of coots is their frontal shield, which is a hard plate extending from their upper bill to the top of their forehead. In American Coots, this shield is generally white, with a red bulb on top, matching the color of the stripe on their bill.
Every now and then, I encounter an American Coot with some extra yellow in their frontal shield. It ranges from just a little...
... to a huge amount of yellow
At one point, it was believed that substantial yellow on the frontal shield indicated the coot was a Caribbean Coot. Some argue that the Caribbean Coot is not a separate species from the American Coot (click here if you want to geek out, coot style
). The photo shown above was widely distributed among bird people in 2011, with some suggesting it could have some Hawaiian Coot genes, while others suggested that it was within normal variation for an American Coot. Regardless, it was a neat bird to see!
Hunters sometimes refer to American Coots as Mud Hens, as they apparently taste like mud. A friend of mine who hunts once shared his favorite coot recipe with me: (1) put a brick inside of the coot's chest cavity; (2) bake in the oven at 350 F for several hours; (3) remove the brick from the chest cavity; (4) discard the coot and eat the brick. I'm guessing this explains why I often see dozens of coots in front of blinds with hunters inside, but never seem to encounter hunters with coots as part of their take. Perhaps the coots know exactly what they are doing when they fill up on muddy vegetation.
Regardless of their intelligence, I find American Coots to be one of the most entertaining birds to watch. So the next time you encounter coots in the field, if you notice them with their wings extended and their head hunkered down, like this...
... stick around, because you might be in for a treat!