American Coots

American Coot Life

Also known as mud hens, American coots are sort of chickens of the sea. They are not related to chickens; they are actually the one attention-getting species of the elusive rail family, most of whose other members like to skulk in marsh grasses. However, coots are chicken-like in the way that their heads bob while they move. They also have difficulty taking flight, but when they do, they can fly for long distances.

American coots are waterbirds who often are found near dabbling ducks. From a birdwatching perspective, they are the birds that I can count on seeing as I search for rarer species of ducks and geese.

However, once I realized that I should not take them for granted, I started to watch their interesting behavior. They forage for food in mud and their feet make all sorts of tracks, especially visible at low tide. Their walking is graceless, their swimming, with the head bobbing, is not elegant, but they nonetheless inhabit some of the most grace-filled, beautiful California landscapes, all containing water and marshes.

The feet of coots are unusual. Unlike the webbed feet of ducks, they have lobes on their toes. Zooming in on my photos, I see that the birds do have distinct toes, but I cannot make out the lobes. So my next quest related to coots is to photograph both the feet and footprints more clearly.

Coots are omnivores eating a buffet of everything from snails, procured on their own, to wild celery, stolen from ducks. Wild celery does not resemble the celery we buy. It lives underwater where its flat leaves move easily to the current.

Coots build nests, containing pinkish eggs, docked to marsh plants. The nests actually float, but they are firmly attached to the surrounding grasses. A detailed description of coot nests reveals that construction and location are critical to the survival of the young. The nest, almost like a boat, must have enough material at the bottom to keep the cold water from chilling or even drowning the chicks. Also like a boat, the nest must float as the water rises to keep the chicks above waterline. Along with the perils of water, too dry of a site is also not ideal for coot nests, because presumably these nests would be too far from sources of food and the quick escape that the slow-walking and quick-floating coots might require.

A Quest for Coots

Almost anytime that I am birding for waterbirds such as elusive types of ducks (that I always struggle to identify) to rare geese on their winter break from the Arctic, I find some coots. On the Central Coast of California, I have observed them in a narrow channel of water heading out to sea at San Simeon State Beach. I also can count on seeing them in shore mud in Los Osos right outside the coffee shop on the water.

In the Great Backyard Bird count (GBBC) of February 2007, surprisingly no one in Los Osos submitted a checklist containing coots. Perhaps the birders' backyards do not include shoreline. In nearby Morro Bay, 3 checklists out of 5 recorded coots.

Despite their absence on the Central Coast, across the entire state of California, the GBBC reveals that the coot was the most populous bird of the count. Birders recorded more than 37,000 coots across the four-day count. Birders saw the coots even in inland areas such as Bakersfield.


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