The Preposterous Coot

(Submitted by Marie L. Atkinson)

Of nature's extraordinary clowns on two wings, perhaps the loudest, oddest, and most laughable is the American coot. Wherever enough water collects for a reasonably calm pond, this roguish black rail and its brethren may assemble like conclaves of convention-goers. Few American birds are as common as Fulica americana and so little known.
Yet wherever they gather, that place becomes the happiest spot in the neighborhood. Although the coot will never be adored for its beauty -- or its atrocious manners -- it is nonetheless a disarming and lovable character. Whatever it lacks in looks, it makes up in fun.
For all its rakish appearance, this amiable water bird epitomizes the curious struggle that wild fowl have had against man, and which man has had -- and is still having -- patching up the havoc wrought by indiscriminate gunning and marsh-draining.
Since the turn of the century, wildlife research has piled up methodical management know-how about the care and keeping of persecuted bird tribes. The coot is no exception. Once nearly extinct, it has been brought from a wilderness "menace" to a status of dignity.

Fifty years ago, "coot" was a duck-hunter's epithet. The bird was cursed, hunted, eradicated, and consigned to extermination. Then science proved that coots are innoxious to man and duck alike, that they rarely damage crops or gardens, that they are not overpopulated enough to foul up propellers, snag fishing lines, or crowd out the "ole swimmin' hole".
In short, the coot is here to stay, and everybody from hunter to bird watcher seems delighted. In fact, as Herbert K. Job has said, "if there is a more amusing bird anywhere, I should like to see it!"
In recommending the coot as an "antidote for the blues", Job was not amiss; it is still touted as one of, if not the funniest bird on fresh water, and it looke the part. Although garbed almost entirely in solid black, it is one of the few birds in the world with a gleaming all-white bill. Furthermore, its eyes are glittering scarlet.
Because they produce as many as sixteen young to a family, coots perpetuate themselves remarkably well. The eggs are laid over a period of several days, and the young hatch one at a time, promptly swimming off under the care of the male bird.
The coot is at home around water, but is by no means a duck. It is strictly a rail -- the most aquatic member of the rail family. In other circles, it gets by variously as a mud hen, blue-pete, moor-head, pond crow, and at least twenty five other local designations. The loud, squawking, pattering take-off across water is a definite trade mark of the American coot. It seems reluctant to fly, and on short flights of a hundred yards or so, it may never rise from the water at all.
Wherever it dwells -- from Alaska to Ecuador -- the inland pond or lake is home. There is, of course, no reason why it cannot visit mountain lakes for a diverting sojourn, and it does, if for no more reason than to escape the heat and humdrem of lowland swamps and marshes. The coot is a wild bird, with wild ways. It has one of the most diversified voice repertoires in the animal kingdom, screeching out everything from a "high C" honk to a low-toned croak. It has to, for among coots life is one interminable search for the next snack, or for a mate.
Coots take up definite territory at mating time, more so than many other birds, and defend it loudly and raucously against all aggressors. To let the world know exactly how it feels, the coot has fourteen separate displays, including charging, courting, and patrolling. But the most familiar trademark of this avian aquaplane is its take-off. Instead of rising and flying like other pondside birds, the coot lifts its wings and patters across the surface with a pandemonium of quacks and splashes. Sometimes it may wish it could rise abruptly from the water like a helicopter and shoot off to safety in a hurry, an ability reserved for a select few ducks like the mergansers. But the staid and matter-of-fact coot seldom considers immediate and permanent escape, and is not as wary or quick to upset as other waterfowl. Usually to get out of harm's way, it merely patters to the other side of the pond. Thus it has become, in its own harmless world, one of the tamest, most easily approached birds of the wild waters.
While coots live singly on a pond for weeks -- and obviously enjoy the solitude -- they also congregate in flocks, either with other coots, or with ducks, or both. On Florida's Lake Okeechobee alone, the wintering coot population has been estimated at more than twenty thousand. A winter census of a lake in Arizona may include a thousand coots, a thousand gadwalls, a thousand baldpates, and assorted other species like pintails, mallards, canvasbacks, and ruddy ducks in lesser numbers.
To keep this diverse arrangement more or less consistent, the lake must have one thing in abundance -- food. The surface may freeze over on cold nights (mortally trapping a few hard-sleeping baldpates and gadwalls), and it may not be the cleanest or wildest lake in the world; but in it, on it, or around it there must be something to eat -- this something, as far as coots are concerned, need only be pondweed or algae. Coots eat almost anything they can lay their white beaks into, and top it off with such delicacies as water milfoil, bur reed, and wild celery. Sometimes they eat grain put out to attract ducks, and in so doing have brought down the wrath of hunters; in times past, "coot shoots" have wiped out as many as five thousand coots in a single day.
Actually, coots do not always compete for foodstuffs with ducks and other water birds, which feed mostly on crustaceans, water insects, and aquatic roots and stems. For the most part, it is a harmonious arrangement, and their amiable personalities allow coots to get on admirably with other water birds.
In a civilized world of rapid-fire living, with problems about this, and worries about that, one relaxing and absorbing pastime is to contemplate a pondful of lackadaisical coots that never seem to worry about anything. Gay, assertive, and entertaining, no other bird surpasses in fun the happy-go-lucky American coot.
From an Article by Ann and Myron Sutton
Nature Magazine, Vol.51, No.10


Utah Nature Study Society
NATURE NEWS/NOTES
January 1970
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