The Odd and Quarrelsome American Coot
Ro Wauer, January 11, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004
This winter has been strange in a number of ways, but the almost complete absence of American coots is one of the most unexpected. Christmas bird counters found only a handful of these black duck-like birds this year. Normally, they are found in the hundreds or thousands during the winter months. They often gather together in huge numbers, like rafts, and counters can have a difficult time obtaining a good count. Their absence this year suggests that the bulk of the populations that usually overwinter in South Texas have remained to the north. That does not mean that they cannot suddenly arrive; a good cold snap to the north could very likely bring the tardy coots into our area.
Many people know this bird as "mudhen," because of its apparent affinity for muddy areas. It is a plump all-black bird, about the size of a small duck, with a white bill and rump. The bill also includes a shield that runs onto the forehead between a pair of ruby-red eyes. Although some folks lump coots with ducks, it is not a duck at all, but a member of the rail family. It is more closely related to the moorhen, sora, and clapper rail than to a mallard or pintail. And although it is less secretive than other rails, spending considerable time in open water, it is a marsh bird with short, rounded wings and long legs with flattened (lobed) toes that act like paddles for swimming and allows it to walk on mud and water plants.
Coots are one of the most adaptable of all water birds. They are able to feed on shore, grazing on grasses and small plants like an ungulate, and also able to feed on bottom plants such as underwater algae. Golf courses near ponds are often troubled with grazing coots. They feed on a wide variety of materials, from a huge assortment of plant pieces, to insects, worms, crayfish, and other invertebrates, as well as an occasional fish, frog or tadpole.
During their search for food, they often end up quarreling with neighbors. Like a little kid, they argue about almost any food supply, and their argument can reach such a heated battle that one can severely injure the other. They often fight with their feet that possess large and very sharp toes. During courtship, males will sometimes fight to the death.
Coot behavior has interested a number of ornithologists who have classified their display behavior into an amazing variety of types, including patrolling, bowing, arching, nibbling, swanning, splattering, warning, and charging. And their vocal repertoire includes an even more amazing variety of clucks and grunts. There even are records of individuals diving below the surface to escape a particular aggressing foe or predator, grabbing unto bottom vegetation to keep it down, and remaining so long that they actually drown.
Normally, coots can be found year-round in South Texas, but their numbers are relatively low during the spring and summer. Like their rail relatives, they construct floating nests of dead plant stems and grasses, anchored to vegetation. They also build adjacent floating platform for the males. They usually have two broods of 8 to 12 eggs, a second one even before the all the first chicks are fledged. Youngsters may leave the nest within four days but usually return overnight. During they daytime they often ride on the back of an adult.
Most folks consider the coot as little more than a pest, but when they are absent they are missed.