It's a Duck, It's a Chicken, It's the American Coot!
If It Isn't a Duck, Then What Is It?
This is a close relative of the gallinules and moorhens, who lives in open water and is often mistaken for a duck. It jerks its small head back and forth like a chicken when swimming or walking and usually travels and feeds in flocks. It is fairly common, as well as widely distributed across North America, who is easily distinguished by its slate gray plumage. It is blacker on the head and around the neck, it has a white bill, red eyes, and a reddish-brown frontal shield. As a matter-of-fact, this is the only bird in the U.S. that has a white bill and a frontal shield. There is also a small, dark ring near the tip of the bill. You know that you’re close when you can see those eyes!
On the Menu...
This bird feeds by immersing its head and neck in shallow water, with its body and head tipped upward. It also dives for vegetation, which makes up most of its diet, and also eats insects, small fish, snails, mollusks, worms, and amphibians. Interestingly, it runs with its wings flapping to gain flight directly from the water. It can also be aggressive toward other waterfowl, and will chase them away from its vicinity.
Courtship and Migration
To display for the female, the male extends his head and neck, and swims slowly toward his chosen. When he nears her, he’ll slowly turn around, and with his wings and tail elevated, swims slowly away. By so doing, he presents his very white rump patch. If she accepts him, she will follow. They then engage in mutual preening, using their bills to caress one another’s feathers.
These migratory birds mass in large flocks on their wintering grounds, and also travel in large flocks. Their northward migration usually gets underway at the start of March, and they are on their breeding grounds by the end of April. By the time that they reach their breeding grounds, they are often paired.
Nests are made from dead stems, lined with finer materials, but no down is within it. It is a floating construction and is anchored to area vegetation, built by both in the pair.
The young hatch at different times, as the eggs are incubated before they are all laid. The other parent cares for the young that have already hatched while the others are incubated. The young leave the nest as they hatch, and the male broods them when they need warmth and shepherding about. They will breed once or twice a year.
The young coot is also black, but the head, throat and bill range from light orange to bright red.
These birds are very social and mix well with ducks. They are usually skittering about on the water, diving for food, or just swimming around. They are strong swimmers and expert divers, generally diving with a loud plop. Coots are not at all wary, as they are fairly reluctant to fly.
Coots have the same enemies as ducks, as they live in the same habitat and under the same conditions. Hawks and eagles will swoop down after them, forcing them to dive. When it surfaces, it will be forced under water again. This continues until it is exhausted when it comes up for air, then it is snatched from the water, and made off with.
Raccoons, otter, owls, and turtles are also other natural enemies. Since they are such easy pickings, it is fortunate that they are fairly common birds.