Old (and young) Coots

american-coot_ridgefieldnwr-wa_lah_8614-1When you call someone an “old coot,” just what exactly are you implying? Perhaps we should take such name-calling as a compliment. In many ways, coots are pretty respectable birds.

Although they share habitat with ducks, and superficially resemble them, coots have lobed toes and a beak instead of webbed feet and a bill. They are members of the rail family, and are related to cranes and limpkins. Their other common name, marsh hen, comes from their chicken-like head bobbing as they walk and feed.

Far from being weaklings, coots display considerable stamina. American Coots have managed to fly across the Atlantic Ocean at least 23 times. Even more remarkable, in 2003 two birds were sighted in Tasmania, a whopping 8,000 miles from home!

They’re articulate as well. Varying body postures, feather arrangements—even the degree that their frontal “nose” shield is inflated—all have significance to other coots. Their deep honking is somewhat similar to that of geese, and coots honk a lot.

american-coot-young_riperianpres-gilbertaz_20100514_lah_2939Nests are hidden among the pond reeds, and are effectively guarded by both parents—an important job, since the eggs and young are relished by numerous predators. Once the eggs hatch, the young still rely on their parents to bring them food, as this photo shows. Such devotion to one’s offspring is certainly commendable.

On the other hand, coots can be pretty cantankerous. Individuals defend their territories with great boldness. On a recent trip to Puerto Rico, I was amazed as I watched a battle between competing Caribbean Coots. After the resident bird charged a trespasser, they engaged in physical combat, in which they both leaned back in the water to fight one another with their feet! Even babies as young as 4 days old will attack one another, slapping with their feet and jabbing with their bills. Maybe it’s this crotchety personality that evokes comparisons with certain elderly men.

They’re thieves as well. Coots are not picky eaters, and dine on marsh plants and aquatic arthropods such as insect larvae and crayfish. But that’s not enough for some groups of juveniles, who form “gangs” and go around stealing food from the bills of neighboring ducks and swans. Next we’ll be hearing about coots in juvenile hall!

american-coot-young_riperianpres-gilbertaz_20100514_lah_2904Dull charcoal-gray plumage and ungainly behavior—from a marketing standpoint, there isn’t much to work with. Therefore, it’s a good thing that American Coots, along with most other coot species, are holding their own, and are listed by Audubon as a “species of least concern.”

On the other hand, the brightly decorated chicks, with their stubby wings flapping in excitement, are so ugly, they’re incredibly cute, which just goes to show—any bird species possesses redeeming qualities if we just get to know it better.

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