No, no, no! That's NOT the kind of coot I meant!

Now, THIS is more like it!
American Coot (Fulica americana)
Photo by Doug Little


Did you ever wonder, though, where the expression "old coot" came from? I did some poking around (no old coots were harmed in the process, I promise), and discovered that most references say coots were implicated in this negative expression due to their excessive numbers. They are so commonplace, though only in the winter in Florida, that hunters (and probably birders looking for something more unusual on the lake) considered them annoying distractions. I can just hear either one saying, "Over there! Oh, wait. It's just another dadblasted old coot."

A raft of coots can number into the hundreds or even thousands, and can make it quite hard to spot the more "mount-worthy" birds hunters would prefer to bag, and birders would prefer to add to their Life Lists. A coot is not going to add much panache hanging over your fireplace, and while they are edible, they aren't considered particularly tasty.

Coots are, however, interesting and attractive birds in their own right. There may be a lot of 'em out there, but personally, I think they deserve a bit more respect than they usually receive. For one thing, for all their duck-like habits and appearance, they aren't. Ducks, that is. Nope. They are actually members of the large and diverse rail family, which includes rails (hence the name), crakes, gallinules, sandhill cranes and coots. Superficially, this bird might look like a duck paddling around on our lakes and rivers every winter, but there are plenty of differences. Let's start with their feet.

Pretty much everyone knows what a duck's feet look like. They're webbed to provide plenty of extra push while swimming, and help keep them from sinking into marshy ground while they are on shore. Coots on the other hand, have lobed feet. See?


Ears aren't the only thing that can have lobes, you know.


The lobes are fleshy extensions (flaps) that don't connect the toes together like webbing would, but do flare out to provide plenty of extra propulsion while swimming. They also provide a nice snowshoe effect when walking along boggy, wet ground, but fold back when the foot is lifted, so it doesn't slow the bird down on dry ground, where getting a foot entangled in grass could be a bad thing.



No sinking into the muck going on here.



Coots are versatile waterfowl, and can be found on freshwater lakes, ponds, slow-moving rivers, marshes, impounded water, sewage retention ponds, and occasionally, during winter months, may even  live temporarily in salt water areas. The key to their happiness is plenty of emergent aquatic vegetation along the shore line, and plenty of deeper water between the stands of vegetation. They are gregarious, which explains why they are often found in such huge numbers, and they definitely have an impact on the environment. One estimate from Back Bay, Virginia, suggested roughly 216 tons of vegetation per winter is eaten by the local coot population!


Seems pretty obvious why this is called a raft of coots, doesn't it?



Hungry little guys, apparently.



A closer look at part of a much larger raft.



Though vegetative matter, especially algae, makes up the bulk of a coot's diet, they are actually omnivorous, and will eat fish, mollusks, and arthropods like crayfish, especially during breeding season, when the extra protein becomes more important. Mollusks and aquatic insects make up a large part of a chick's diet. And speaking of chicks, let's take a look at some American coot nests and babies.


A well-hidden nest, surrounded by reeds and grasses.



And nothing like a nest surrounded by water to discourage most predators,
excluding muskrats and a few others, who will swim right up and crawl in.



Coots typically nest in May and June, following a prolonged courtship period. They are monogamous birds, and once they have selected a nest site, their pair bond becomes permanent for the rest of their lives. From 8 to 12 eggs are laid per clutch, with two or more broods raised per season. Males and females share the incubation duties, with males carrying the larger part of the job. Their surprisingly colorful chicks are precocial, meaning they are covered with down, eyes open, and ready to leave the nest within about six hours of hatching.



Parent with two orange and black, newly hatched chicks.



It's a whole new world out there for this little one.



Vital Statistics for American Coots

Description: Dark gray to black, short white bill, white
undertail coverts, red upper edge of white frontal shield
usually only visible from close range.

Length: 15.5" to 16.9"
Wingspan: 23" to 25"
Weight: 21.2oz to 24.7oz (or less than 2 lbs)

Conservation listing: Species of Least Concern
Migration habits: Coots are migratory birds.
Longevity: Oldest coot on record lived to be 22 years and 4 months of age
Predation: Coot chicks and eggs are preyed upon by everything from crows to raccoons.
It is estimated adult coots make up 80% of the bald eagle diet in some areas.



You can see this coot is much smaller than the male mallard.


NOTE ADDED 8/17/17

Please accept my apologies for misleading you on when coots can be found in Florida. I have always considered them wintering birds due to the fact that there are such vastly huge rafts of them floating around the state during the winter months. As you can see from this range map below, this is not the case. Non-breeding resident coots can be found here in lower numbers all year long, apparently. My mistake, but I hope adding this range map, which should have been included yesterday, will clear the matter up. It also shows you just how widespread the American coot is. And it serves to remind me once again that no matter how long you've been birding, or doing any other activity, there's always something new to learn. And since learning something new each day is one way to stay young, I welcome that. (Of course, I'd prefer not to have given anyone wrong information, first, but I hope this map will make up for that, somewhat).  :)


Coots have a certain amount of difficulty becoming airborne, which results in one of my favorite things about them. They are famous for running on water, flapping their wings like mad, as they try for liftoff. It's especially fun to see this when an entire raft is racing across a pond, cleared for takeoff, but struggling to make it happen, just the same.



"Gonna give this a shot, now."
Flap, flap, flap.



"If only there were a prize for the longest pre-flight run, I'd have it made."



"Wait. Where'd this other guy come from?"



"So much for sneaking out early. Now everyone wants in on the act."



For your viewing pleasure, your Rogue's Gallery of Old Coots. And a few young ones.


Time for those nice, aquatic insects mentioned earlier. Yum.


Coots can battle it out with the best of them, though fights seldom end in serious injury.



Sometimes spectators cheer them on. (Betcha it's the female they're fighting over.)



Common gallinule and American coot. These two share
habitat and it is often difficult to tell their nests apart.



A pair posing prettily. (How alliterative!) As you can see,
there is no sexual dimorphism going on here.
(You can't tell the males from the females.)


Well, that's about everything I know to share with you about the American coot. Hope you've enjoyed learning a bit more about our (wintering) central Florida waterfowl. I'll try to be back next week, with more on ducks and duck-like birds. Something a bit flashier, perhaps. Hope you'll join me then. In the meantime, don't forget to look . . . well . . . OUT, this winter. All the better to spot lots and lots of American coots, keeping warm in our local lakes and rivers.

And last but not least, don't forget! If you are in the Central Florida Area, you owe it to yourself to go for an eco tour aboard the Naiad.
Captain Dooley and Wildlife Photographer, Doug Little, will make it worth your while
It's hands down, the best bargain around!