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A Bird in Hand

American Coot: Common does not mean ‘normal’

The American coot marches to its own beat. It is not a duck, though many people confuse them with the web-footed types. This might be because coots swim like ducks and dive like ducks, and they often hang out with ducks, but that does not make them a duck. And they are not shorebirds, though there is some resemblance and they “shore” are birds. Coots are members of the Rallidae, a cosmopolitan family of birds that exist almost everywhere and in a variety of habitats. Some Rallidae are even flightless. So the American coot comes from a fine pedigree of interesting birds. 

During the final weeks of fall and the earliest weeks of spring, you can spot rafts of coots on Lake Pend Oreille, sometimes numbering in the hundreds. Coots are migratory birds that seem to suddenly appear out of nowhere. This is because they migrate at night. So we will rarely, if ever, see them in flight. But not all of these coots are simply passing through. For many of them, Lake Pend Oreille is their destination. And, of course, some coots forget to leave and might spend the entire winter chillin’ on the lake, so to speak. 

Coots are fairly nondescript in appearance. They are a uniform black and about the size of a small duck. They have a very non-duck bill, being narrow and pointed. The upper mandible of the bill also extends up onto the bird’s forehead, forming a little shield. The bill is white on mature birds, with a small black ring toward the tip. A dark bill indicates an immature bird. There is little if any sexual differentiation between the males and females. They pretty much all look the same, though only through our eyes. They seem to have no problem separating the Johns from the Janes. And they are not mute, though you might not often be able to hear them. To me, their call is like a cross between a goose and a gull. You’ll know it when you hear it. But they can be very noisy if they choose to be. 

Coot feet are also interesting, if not unique. They do not have webbed feet, but nonetheless move about in the water very ably. Instead of webbing, coot toes have flat lobes that expand outward with each rearward movement of the foot, capturing water and thrusting the bird forward. Very cool! They are also omnivores, meaning that they will eat both animal and plant matter. 

Surprisingly, many duck hunters avoid taking coots, even though daily limits are listed in the hunting regulations. This might be because many hunters know them by the disparaging term of “mud hen.” Though I’ve never eaten a coot—yet—they apparently don’t taste any different than the ducks most waterfowlers target. So, if you are a waterfowl hunter and you get a coot, try it and tell me what you think. My email address is right up top. Hey, I love birds, both in the binoculars and on the dinner table.

Coots are important to the local biosystem as they are a frequent prey animal for local carnivores, such as the bald eagle. I have seen baldies take coots more than once. Sad for the coot, happy for the eagle. And any other meat eater will grab them when the opportunity presents itself, such as coyotes. 

Coots build floating nests made out of plant material, anchored among the water plants. If you want to see a special treat, spy out their young once they begin swimming with their parents. Talk about ugly! I venture to guess that these little rascals are safe from animal predation as they could scare Frankenstein’s monster. Talk about a “face that only a mother can love.” If you like scary things google the term “baby coot.” I warned you!  

Coots are common, but that is only by population numbers. By every other measure they are quite uncommon. They are distinctive animals wrapped in a plain vanilla wrapper, albeit in black. And they evidently make a great pie, so what can be better than that? Happy birding. 

Photo of mom and baby coots by Mike Baird, used under the Creative Commons license.

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

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birding, American coot, coots

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