Coots are Rails, Not Ducks
Ro Wauer, The Victoria Advocate, June 8, 2003, © 2003
After a recent nature note about mottled ducks, an acquaintance told me that I had forgotten about the abundant coots when I stated that the only common summertime ducks in South Texas were wood and mottled ducks. But I had not forgotten about coots, because those all-black waterbirds are not ducks at all, but members of the rail family. Coots are more closely related to the clapper rail that is commonplace along the coastal wetlands.
Properly called, "American coot," but also known as "mudhen," coots are full-time residents of South Texas and almost everywhere else in the state. They are most abundant in winter, when a few to hundreds can be expected in almost every lake or pond in Texas. Congregations of 1500 or more coots are not unexpected at some area lakes in winter.
Coots are easily identified by their relatively small size, all-black plumage, except for a white undertail patch, white bill and frontal shield (upper portion of bill), sometimes with a small red patch, and red eyes. Although they spend most of their time in the water, they also come out onto the land where they wander about searching for food. Then, the adults' yellowish legs are obvious.
Coots are true opportunists, able to feed on a wide variety of materials. In the water, they will take almost any kind of edible foods, including algae, and will often dip underwater for submerged plants. They are able to dive to as much as 25 feet in deeper water for bottom-growing plants. On land, they commonly graze on grassy areas, including golfcourses and parks. They seem to get along very well on land, able to run quite fast when threatened. Stems, leaves, roots, and bits of trashfoods are taken whenever available.
Coot behavior is fascinating, and has been the subject of considerable research over the years. They are extremely territorial, in spite of spending a good deal of their time in large flocks. However, on their breeding grounds, males can be extremely aggressive. Kent Rylander, in "The Behavior of Texas Birds," points out that they "often rear up and attack each other with their sharp-clawed feet. The white frontal shields help paired birds recognize each other." They will also vent their emotions against an intruder or competitor with explosive cacks, clucks, coos, and wails.
Like other members of the rail family, coots build floating nests made of cattails and other marsh plants. They may build up to nine optional nests, and may use two nests at a time. They then place 8 to 12 eggs on these platforms, and both parents participate in the incubation. The eggs hatch in about two weeks, and within three or four days the young are out and about swimming alongside their parents. But the youngsters are among the least graceful of all marsh birds. Called "spalatterers," they seem to scramble across the surface of the water with wings flapping in an amusing manner. They and their parents have been called "aquatic pigeons."
Rylander includes the following paragraph in his fascinating book: "American coots are the most aquatic members of the family Raillidae. They are better adapted for diving than dabblers and many other ducks, as their feet are set back on the body and their toes bear lateral flaps. Like grebes and diving ducks, they must run across the water when taking flight. It is said that when severely frightened they dive and cling to underwater vegetation, sometimes until they drown."