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Knowing Your Gallinules and Cute Coots
During my early days learning birds, I took my first trip to the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. It was autumn. The weather was lovely with a bit of a chill in the air; something so welcome after a harsh Texas summer. I was primarily looking for ducks, but gave that up as the high variety of birds on the coast blew me away. There were ducks, raptors, songbirds, shorebirds; every type of bird one could wish. I added four new species to my newly begun life list. Among all those birds, I found three species of dabbler duck-like birds, that aren’t ducks.
American Coot Features
The Cute Coot
The first was the American Coot, a duck-like bird at a distance, but on closer inspection, you will catch a difference quickly. Ducks have rounded bills. Coots have long pointed bills. They are part of the order Gruiformes and Railidae family. Above that pointed bill was unique “frontal shield;” an extension of the upper bill. The shield starts at the top of the forehead with a deep red spot between the eyes and a dark ring near the tip of the white bill. This is the only bird in Texas with a white bill. One good look at the head and anyone’s mind is going to regroup and say, “Not a duck.”
The Coot's feather coloring is dark grayish black at the head lightening to a pale grey toward the legs. These red-eyed birds gather in large flocks along the coast in winter and then head back up north where they breed. A few birds stay on in the spring to breed, but I haven’t found any as yet. The Coot’s floating nest is made of cattails and grasses. Coots may also go parasitic, laying their eggs in the nests of other coots, Franklin’s Gulls, Cinnamon Teal, and Redheads, according to Cornell Labs of Ornithology.
Another feature that kills mistakes in duck identification involves catching the bird with its feet out of the water; no webs to be had. The Coot’s long yellow legs sport feet that have long lobed toes. It’s a very interesting foot pattern as you can see in the photograph. The lobed skin helps the bird swim like webs help ducks, but they also fold back when the Coot lifts its foot, keeping out of the way as the bird walks and grips reeds and grasses. A short spur-like fourth toe in back helps with balance.
And yes, Coots are cute. They aren’t as camera shy as some other marsh birds. They happily swim right up to the boardwalks and along the banks of the marsh to graze on grasses. The split white sections under their up turned tails when swimming give the impression of a hint of frilly underpants. On a troop scouting field trip, a young scout I was teaching about birds became very taken to the coots calling out ‘cute coot’ every time he saw a new one; at least until he saw the first alligator.
The Coot is mostly a vegetarian, but also eats insects such as dragonflies, beetles, crustaceans, snails, and dives for tadpoles and salamanders. This is the only one of the three species I will mention that can fully submerge.
Their voice sounds like a repeating “Kuk kuk kuk kuk kuk,” according to Birds of Texas by Arnold and Kennedy.
Common Gallinule Gallery
A Face Too Pretty to be Called Common
The second bird was the Common Gallinule, also called the Common Moorhen in the recent past. The temptation to call this bird a duck at a distance is also put to rest upon seeing its head. The Common Gallinule’s bill has a red shield with a bright yellow tip. It is grayish black at the head and underside with a brownish back. Its flanks have a stripe of white above the waterline and white on the underside of the tail.
The Common Gallinule’s feet do not have lobes. The yellow toes appear longer than the Coots with a longer clawed back toe. They can grip reeds and cattails to walk above the waterline and perch on vegetation. In the picture gallery, you can see one in tall grasses several feet above the waterline, strongly clutching bunches of grass in its feet.
Their diet consists mostly of grass vegetation and snails. They both scavenge on the surface and turn tail up hunting for food while partly submerged.
Arnold and Kennedy describe the Common Gullinule’s calls as ranging from “chicken like clucks, screams and squawks,” in their book Birds of Texas.
Purple Gallinule Gallery
The Beauty of the Marsh
The Purple Gallinule is the showiest of these three species. Arnold and Kennedy, described this bird as “the result of group of children given a box of paints and let loose on a bird.” The Purple Gallinule runs purple to brilliant blue on the head and underside while pale blue along the back of the neck. Coloring on the back is a mixture of peacock green and mossy green. The under-tail has a fluffy display of white feathers and the upper tail is mossy green shading to bronze at the tips. The long yellow legs also have long toed feet like the Common Gallinule. Its bill has a pale blue frontal shield. The center portion of the bill is reddish orange and the tip is bright yellow.
I’ve seen this bird grazing on grasses and also walking across lily pads turning up the sides looking for snails. They grab the edge with their bill first, pulling it up. If something looks worth checking out, the bird will pull the leaf back and step on the rolled up end to keep it in place as it picks away tasty bits. They also eat spiders, insects, small fish and plant matter, and will also take down frogs for a meal.
The Purple Gallinule’s call is heard more often when it takes flight. It has been described as a cackle and squawk. It call sounds “like a laughing hiddy-hiddy-hiddy, hit-up, hit-up, hit-up,” according to The Bird Life of Texas, by Dr. Harry Oberholser.
Gallinule Chicks Gallery
Gallinule Family Matters
Both Purple and Common Gallinules breed in Texas. Like Coots, they make floating nests of cattails and grasses in secluded dense vegetation. Nests are carefully anchored to strong vegetation or built one to three feet above the waterline. The breeding season runs from April to September.
Purple Gullinules can lay their first eggs in mid-March to mid-May. Clutches usually boast around 8 eggs. Late year clutches may have as few as 5 eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs 22-25 days. Once hatched, chicks are moved to a second nest. Parents keep close to the chicks until they can feed and fend for themselves. Pairs often have more than one brood per year. The family stays together, with older siblings helping to feed and look after the later clutch. The young can usually fly by nine weeks of age. Unlike Coots, these birds move in small groups, not large flocks.
Chicks are covered in black down. Their bills have alternating black and white stripes around the tip end while the base is reddish. Purple Gallinule chicks go through a fast feather morph, changing colors almost weekly until they gain the bright coloring of adults. A progression of this transformation is shown in the picture gallery.
The Common Gallinule can have 8 to 14 eggs and will incubate 19-22 days. Chicks are black fluffy long legged balls with bald red skull caps and red bills with yellow tips. Their protruding eye's lids are black contrasting with the red top as seen in the picture gallery. Their big long-toed feet make them strong swimmers. They scamper across floating grasses and lily pads in the marsh almost as fast as adults. Early Common Gallinule broods also share in caring for younger siblings as shown in the picture gallery.
Each species migrates over a wide range despite being awkward fliers. They can be seen making short hops with trailing legs in flight across the marsh, but are strong fliers when heading across country.
The Purple Gallinule ranges the farthest south. Their northern range includes northeastern Texas, Louisiana and the coastal areas of Gulf Coast states. They winter as far south as Southern Brazil and upper Argentina.
The Common Gallinule summers across most of the eastern United States and into Eastern Canada. They winter on the Western coast of Mexico and Central America. In South America, they are found year-around in a broad circle on the northern and south and eastern boundaries of the dense Brazilian jungles; but, that is just its American range. This bird is found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.
The American Coot most commonly ranges as far south as the southern end of Central America, but is found all across North America. It summers across the central western states and up into Central Canada. Dr. Oberholser noted that these birds may also be found in the Andies in Columbia and Ecuador, the main Hawaiian Islands, the Bahamas and Greater Antilles.
Lucky Texas, we have all three from spring until fall when they head back to their southern range. Look for these birds along the Coastal Plain, Rio Grande Valley and Eastern half of the state on ponds, lakes wetlands and marshes.
Three Birds Together
Over all, these three birds are listed of least concern having strong populations. Cornell Labs adds that the Common Gallinule is threatened from loss of habitat and predation in some parts of their northern range and the Purple Gallinule is showing steep declines. The Coot, however, is wide ranging and numerous and hunted along with ducks. Because it is so numerous, Coots are used by scientists as an indicator species to watch for pollutants, habitat changes and environmental stresses. When you have the chance, make trip to your local wetlands areas to see these unique lovely birds.
© 2015 Sherry Thornburg