The Case for the Coot

Molly McGinnis

August, 2004 issue of Signals from TARSUS

Coot CC, BS, SW, etc.
Eurasian Coot, Fulica atra; American Coot, Fulica americana

Most Ransome readers have seen coots paddling, dabbling, and fighting on lakes, ponds, marshes, canals, and quiet ocean shorelines. Except for the chalky white bill, a coot looks rather like a small, sooty-black duck, but coots are more closely related to cranes and moorhens than to ducks.

Ransome's coot – and the Coot Club's – is the Eurasian Coot, and you could see a coot just like it (except for the white feather!) almost anywhere in the Old World – all of Britain, almost anywhere in Europe, and in most of the rest of the world, even Australia. Similar species fill in the gaps worldwide. The American Coot looks like the European, except for the head. Our coot has a red "shield" above the bill and all-black head feathers, but the Eurasian Coot's head is literally "flashier." The white bill leads to a white shield that blends with strip of white forehead feathers, so the dark head flashes white when it turns toward the observer.

One American or European coot looks just like any other coot – shades of black and gray for males and females alike. A coot with a white wing feather like the one in the book might seem a rather far-fetched idea, but it's not really at all unlikely that a coot would show a white wing feather. If you could take a coot in hand and lift the top (primary) feathers, you would see that each feather in the second layer is generously rimmed with white. All it would take is for one feather to be broken or twisted or pulled out in a fight (and coots fight a lot before the flocks split up to breed).

And there is another reason for the coot to be a good mascot. Why have a mascot you never see? Coots aren't much disturbed by human presence, and could be seen in fair numbers where other marsh birds disappeared into the reeds or simply disappeared into oblivion as marshes were drained, reeds cut, and pressures on increasingly rare eggs grew worse. They could maintain a population longer than other marsh birds because they are generalist and opportunistic feeders that eat anything that comes to hand (or rather, beak), and they have terrific reproductive success. They lay 4 to 6 eggs and hatch most of them, and if the nest is destroyed they will re-nest up to four times, though they raise only one set of young in a season even if the first nesting is successful. Both parents build nests, incubate eggs, and care for the young. When coot populations begin to decline – and the Broads coots had declined by the Coot Club's time – you know that the whole biome is in big trouble! (Compare the Great Northern: 2 eggs, one nesting, or often none if the nesting birds are disturbed, and they MUST have just the right nursery pond with lots of small fish to train their babies on.)

The Birder's Handbook says that coots "appear neither comical, vulnerable, nor inspirational," but they are almost as versatile as monkeys or people and if you're near a park with a water feature you can take a sack of old bread to a bank or bridge and spend a pleasant time in the company of coots. Watch them swim and dive. You might think that such expert maneuverers would have webbed feet like a duck or a Diver, but coots have a much more interesting and unusual foot*. The toes are separate, with wide, flat lobes out to the sides of the toes – think of an oar or a canoe paddle, which can be "feathered" this way or that for maximum drag on the propelling stroke and minimum on the recovery. The foot is not just a swim aid – it can help an overheated coot cool down, like a seal's flipper. And partly because of its versatile foot, coots are quite capable on land and often "graze" waterside lawns and meadows, where they pick grass and gobble small invertebrates like snails, slugs, and sowbugs (woodlice to the British and some U. S. easterners). In water, they eat vegetation and the same kinds of "meat animals" and not only snap up titbits dropped by other waterbirds but snatch greenery from the very beaks of ducks and even swans.

Surprisingly, coot relatives include some of the rarest birds, and some of the most secretive. There are several endangered or threatened cranes, rails and gallinules, and all are in the same order with coots: Gruiformes. Rails, gallinules and moorhens (waterhens in Britain) are the closest relatives, in the same family (Rallidae). Rails are thin as rails seen from back or front (zoologists say "laterally compressed") and all but invisible when hiding among reeds. "Gallinula" is the Latin word for a domestic chicken hen, and suggests that moorhens and gallinules were once considered good eating – you might think better than the bitterns Old Harry the eeler talks of shooting in The Big Six. Gallinules and moorhens look like large, flashy-colored coots, though they actually smaller (but longer legged). Gallinules are solitary and secretive and seldom seen, like rails, but the Common Moorhen of North America can be seen in the kinds of places coots like.

The rest of the story? The Coot Club mascot fades quietly out of the story fairly early on – and that's what coots do. While they're laying eggs and sitting on them they are quite nonchalant, but once the chicks hatch, they are experts at vanishing. Each parent takes part of the family to forage near an edge of the water where there are reeds or cattails or other tallish inshore plants. If one parent senses something disturbing there is one call and presto! Each set of birds disappears into the reeds in a flash. In fall large flocks form, with gangs of boisterous young hooligans on the outskirts. Coots on water squabble and fight and in spring try to intimidate or attract other coots by fanning their tails to show their white rumps. Paintings in bird books show the white feathers under the tail, but you would never know they were there when you watch a sedately foraging nesting coot in early summer!

*Feet are as important to a water bird as to a raptor, and no one who's read T. H. White's The Once and Future King will forget Wart's ordeal with the hawks and the three questions, each answered by "the foot!"

Endangered and threatened Gruiformes: in the U. S., we all know about the Whooping Crane. Several species of rail are endangered. In Hawaii, the endemic moorhen and coot are both endangered. To find out more, check (a lovely site for information on many kinds of wildlife).

Good Reading: The Birder's Handbook, by Erlich, Dobkin, and Wheye. Fireside, 1988. All 720 pages in stock at Amazon for only $14. All the details about nesting and lifestyle and lovely little essays too.

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