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Coots and Moorhens

Updated on August 7, 2015

Notes from a Lancashire Countryman.

There can hardly be a pond ,lake or canal that does not have three species of waterfowl gracing their waters no matter how small the pond or lake may be. The coot, moorhen and mallard will seen at these locations sometime during the year. Now that spring is fast approaching and the orchestration of new life will soon flow into the countryside these waterbirds will be commonly encountered.

The coot, Fulcia atra is a member of the rail family Rallidae and is a cantankerous bird full of self importance given much to belligerence and squabbling with other coots is a common occurrence. The slightest provocation will start their aggression especially in spring when they become very territorial and will not tolerate other coots that venture into their territory. They often fight viciously using their long claws as effective weapons. The coot will drive off much larger birds such as geese or even swans with a foolhardy bravery that other water birds of their size lack.


THE COOT-This photograph has caught the birds beautiful red eyes
THE COOT-This photograph has caught the birds beautiful red eyes | Source

Description of the Coot.

The plumage of the coot appears to be black,especially from a distance. In fact it is blackish grey, with black head and whitish wing bar. Juvenile birds are browner  with a whitish face,throat and belly. Nestlings have a reddish orange head and neck.

Adults have a white bill and frontal face shield. The legs are greenish the eye is a beautiful red colour but only seen at close quarters. The toes are long and lobed. The bird has a somewhat rotund body. In relation to the body the wings are medium small, the tail very short, neck medium as are the bill and length of the legs.

The flight is heavy, laboured low over water with legs trailing behind. They have a pattering take off. When swimming they have bobbing gait. They dive. On land they walk . Coots feed on small fish, worms and the tender parts of aquatic vegetations. Where they are use to people being around they can become very tame.

White frontal shield

The white frontal face shield is clearly visible.
The white frontal face shield is clearly visible. | Source

Nest and eggs of the coot

The coot rarely nests on the bank, but more often builds in shallow water. They build up the nest from the bottom or even let it float secured by reeds or other vegetation among which it was built. An island is another common location for the nest site. It is constructed of dead vegetable matter and is a large substantial pile, the finer constituents being reserved for the slightly hollow center wherein the eggs are laid.

The eggs number from 5-7 with the latter being more the norm, but as many of 12 may be encountered. The eggs are quite unlike any other british bird although the family resemblance is apparent. They are larger than those of the moorhen and of a similar colour being buff and marked with dark blotches, but lack the larger spots that distinguish those of the moorhen The incubation period is about three weeks.

The chicks are downy with an red/orange face and head and have a somewhat comical appearance when they are first encountered on the water. Like many water birds they can take to the water in a matter of minutes after hatching. The young chicks of the coot are well known for pestering the parents for food.

Coot feeding


The Moorhen

Moorhens are very adaptable birds who take their common name ,not from the moor as it suggests, {they are seldom seen in this habitat } but rather from mere meaning water, moor is thought to be a corruption of mere in the birds name. Hence another of its common names the water hen. Hen because of the form of their feet which are similar to those of a hen. This enables the bird to scratch for food in the manner of a hen but they also allow the bird to perch in trees should they be inclined to do so. Because the toes are widespread it also enables the bird to walk on marshy land and mud banks and just as importantly they enable the bird to swim well, without the need for lobes between their toes, as is the case with the coot.

In character the moorhen and the coot could not be more different. The moorhen lacks the aggression of the former and is a very timid bird much given to flight across the water if disturbed. On land, at the first sign of danger, the tail is flicked to warn other birds before heading for the nearest cover running with its head held low down.

Moorhen or Water hen

The dark plumage is enhanced by red, yellow and white.
The dark plumage is enhanced by red, yellow and white. | Source

Plumage of the Moorhen

The plumage is blackish brown above and grey below. There is a white line on the flank and white undertail feathers{coverts}. The young are Mostly olive brown with a whitish throat and belly and white undertail coverts. The bill is red tipped with yellow and the adults have a red frontal face shield. The legs are green with a reddish garter. The eye is red.

In relation to its body the wings are medium small, the tail short. The neck and bill are a medium as are the legs. The flight is weak, with legs trailing behind at first. Take off from water is usually laboured and pattering. They swim with a jerky movement often showing the white undertail coverts. It may dive if alarmed. On land it walks or runs.

Shy bird

Moorhens are shy birds and keep their distance from man.
Moorhens are shy birds and keep their distance from man. | Source

Nest and eggs of the moorhen

 The moorhen  nests among reeds and other waterside vegetation some times on a low hanging bough or in rare cases up in a tree. The latter site is often chosen when their are many predators  such as the brown rat in the locality.

The nest is large and open, a structure of dry reeds, twigs or any other vegetable debris. The nest is then lined with finer material, and where the birds feel secure it is not at all concealed. When in danger of flooding the nest is raised, and is used as a sleeping place for the young. The eggs number from 6-12 and are very characteristic in appearance , pale buff liberally and evenly spotted with a chocolate markings. They may first be found as early as March. The moorhen unlike the coot does not protect its nest and will abandon eggs if danger threatens.

Two to three broods are raised, per season. The young follow their parents persistently waving their tiny wings, trying to attract their attention. later broods may well be fed by their older brothers and sisters, from earlier broods.

When swimming the head and tail move jerkily, the birds tail is held as high as its head. This bobbing movement is characteristic of the species and along with the white tail make the species very easy to identify even from a distance.

Female mallard


Species overlap

Wherever, the two species occur they will almost certainly share the habitat with th mallard. This our commonest wild duck will be encountered wherever there is enough water for them to land on. The females are streaked brownish which helps to camouflage them when nesting. The brown is sometimes interrupted by blue markings on its feathers. The male in full breeding plumage is an impressive bird, with its bottle green coloured head white collar and chestnut brown breast.

During the moult and the end of the breeding season both sexes look alike and may be told from each other by the colour of their bills. The female has a brownish coloured bill at all times while the male has a yellowish coloured bill at all times. This is the key identification feature during the moult.

Mallards are resident with the coot and moorhen



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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      What are moorhens and coots a type of?

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Hi Eiddwen, I know you appreciate nature and you will have planty to appreciate in your native Wales. Thank you for visiting COOTS AND MOORHENS, your comments are much appreciated. Best wishes to you.

    • Eiddwen profile image


      7 years ago from Wales

      Hi I love anything to do with nature and wildlife so this one was a treat.

      Thanks for sharing,

      Take care



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