Bird of the Month: American Coot

Coot-chase-West

American Coot. Photo by John West.

By Sue Drown

What’s the duck with the white bill?”

It’s a question many a Prescott Audubon field trip leader has answered on a birding outing. The short answer: an American Coot.

Coots are actually rails, but they’re the most visible and aquatic of this otherwise reclusive family. Coots float around our reservoirs, Willow and Watson lakes, like unremarkable gray ducks. When on land, they show their large, greenish-yellow feet with lobed toes, so they walk like you might with flippers on — with cumbersome strides to lift that big foot without tripping. Coots are grapefruit-round, with smallish wings, so they must run along the water, splattering and flapping, to get airborne. Still, many migrate quite a distance, from the northern prairie-pothole regions to our lakes for the winter. They migrate at night. They prefer fresh water, and don’t mind if it’s a bit mucky. They’re mostly vegetarian, finding plenty of algae and aquatic matter in reservoirs like Willow and Watson.

If you watch birds in the fall or winter on our lakes, you’ve seen American Coots. It’s a safe bet that, on any winter day, coots outnumber all the other aquatic birds put together. This might lead you to guess that they are very successful breeders and that they’re a species — like ravens, gulls, and vultures — whose needs are benefited by human activities. And you’d be right.

Coots may strike you as plump, chicken-like, clumsy, raucous, gregarious, quarrelsome, awkward, or aggressive. Around here, “conspicuous” might be the best description. They munch on the muddy shore in dense herds, sheep-like, nibbling and rolling forward in a tight mass, each busy with its own concerns, amazingly domestic. In the evening they head to their communal night roosts in safe cover along the weedy lake edges, thousands of plump grey shapes in an orderly line. But in breeding season, they’re monogamous and territorial and will fight aggressively for almost any reason.

Strictly utilitarian birds, you say? Well, they also have a secret, only visible on close inspection. Coots wear a lovely garnet-red jewel above their white bill, incongruously subtle and elegant, similar to the gems that some women in South and Southeast Asia wear on the space between their eyebrows. Very classy.

[Info via “Birds of North America,” Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and “American Breeding Bird Atlas,” Corman, Troy, et al.]

*****

Sue Drown is a certified bird nerd, and is seldom seen without her binoculars. She has thrived since moving to Arizona’s bird-rich region eight years ago.

Visit Prescott Audubon Society at PrescottAudubon.Org. Contact them at Contact@PrescottAudubon.Org.

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