Thursday, December 13, 2012


© Dave Spier
"Mudhen," "chicken of the marsh," and "water guinea" are just a few of the many nicknames for a dark bird with a white bill commonly found on area waters. Birders know it as American Coot (Fulica americana), as in "crazy as a coot." The poor bird gets no respect.

In the winter, look for coots on bays, saltmarshes, lakes or canals wherever there is enough open water for them to get a long, running start to become airborne. This includes the Pacifc coast from British Columbia south to Panama, then east across the southern states and up the eastern seaboard to Cape Cod. An eBird bar chart for any county or location (which lists all of the bird species reported and their seasonal distribution, i.e. when to expect them) will show if and when the coot has been present. (If you're in the coot's normal winter range and there is a gap the 3rd week in December, I'll bet it's an oversight because birders are too busy Christmas shopping instead of scoping local waterways.) Make a note; if you see a coot the third week of December, let me know and I'll help you submit the observation to eBird!

Coots have dark-gray bodies and nearly-black heads which contrast sharply with white bills. The adult's eyes are bright red. The legs are green and their long toes have lobed edges to help them swim. They usually travel in flocks and sometimes you can find a raft of several hundred coots swimming together.

Although they may hang around with ducks, a coot's body structure is quite different. The bill is somewhat chicken-like and the feet lack webs between the toes. Coots are related to cranes (but much smaller) and to rails, as in "skinny as a rail," but plumper. (Rails are secretive marsh birds laterally compressed for slipping through cattails and reeds. By now, they've gone south for the winter.)

Coots are primarily vegetarians. They will dive for underwater plants or pluck at plants in a marsh. Another preferred feeding tactic is to steal plants from other coots or ducks. (More on All About Birds...)

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at or connect on my Facebook pages - Dave Spier (photographic naturalist) and my personal page. There is now a community page for The Northeast Naturalist.

No comments: