American Coot, Fulica americana
The American coot (Fulica americana) is a member of the Rallidae bird family. This bird makes its home in open bodies of waters and wetlands. The coot can grow to be about 16 inches in length and weight about 1.4 pounds. Adult coots have a white frontal shield that usually has a reddish-brown spot between the eyes by the top of the bill. Its bill is typically short, white, and thick. At the billtip a dark band can be identified up close. The head and neck of the coot is darker than the rest of its body which is gray. It has yellowish legs and instead of webbed feet this coot has scalloped toes. The coot’s chicks have bright red heads and beak with a black body. The chicks have orange plumes around their necks. The coot’s call is a squeaking, high-pitched honk that is like a goose’s call to some extent; however, the coot’s call is hollower sounding.
From southern Quebec to the Pacific coast of North America and even as far south as northern South America the coot breeds in marshes. The coots from North America east of the Rocky Mountains migrate to the southern United States and southern British Columbia. They are resident year-round where the water is open in the winter. It has been noted that in Ohio the coots leave for their breeding range close to half a month earlier and leave for winter quarter about half a month earlier than they did 100 years ago. It may be an effect from global warming but the units of coots that stay near the northern limit year-round seem to be increasing. The American coot may seem like a weak flyer but once in flight the coot has a substantial amount of stamina. The coot has crossed over the Atlantic Ocean at least 23 times to reach Western Europe. It also has 12 records of being in Azores and 4 records in Great Britain. A single member of this species tried to overwinter in Shetland Islands, Scotland in December of 2003. In October 2008, there were two sightings in Tasmania.
To take flight the American coot must pedal with their feet across water. Because of the way the coot’s head bobs while walking or swimming has earned this bird the nickname the “marsh hen” or the “mud hen”. This bird swims in open water regularly and is able to dive for food. The American coot is omnivorous and can also hunt for food on land. It feeds on plant material, fish, arthropods and other aquatic animals. It builds its nest in tall reeds in well-disclosed areas. During the mating season the American coot is extremely territorial. Both male and female coots fight with their neighbors over small territory where the coots keep their food.
Female coots are noted to lay their eggs in their neighbors’ nests (conspecific brood parasitism); opposite to what one might presume, this behavior is ordinary amongst females that have a nest of their own than among those coots who were not able to have a fixed nest of their own during the mating season. Because coots are aggressive and defensive about their eggs and protecting their nests, their behavior helps decrease losses of eggs against effective predators. The predators that take the coot’s eggs are the black-billed magpies, American crows, and forester’s tern. The coot’s nests are usually demolished by muskrats but the coot’s mammalian predators also include coyotes, raccoons, red foxes, and skunks. Once the mating season is over the daring behavior of mature and immature adult coots usually leads them to their falling prey. Northern harriers, great horned owls, American alligators, golden eagles, bald eagles, great black-backed, bobcats, and California gulls are constant predators during non-nesting-season. 80% of the American coot’s diet consists of bald eagles.
Once the breeding season is over, usually during the winter, the coots come together in various groups for protection and socializing. Coots are referred to as covers or rafts when they gather-together.
On the coast of Louisiana, the American coot is a Cajun word, pouldeau, from French the “coot” literally means “water hen”, poule d’eau. The American coot is quite popular in Cajun cuisine and is used as an ingredient in gumbos that are cooked at home by duck hunters.
In Middle Pleistocene of California, coot fossils are found and have been described as Fulica hesterna, however these fossils cannot be told apart from the present-day American Coot. Although, the Pleistocene coot, Fulica shufeldti (formerly known as F. minor), is famously known to be apart of the Fossil Lake fauna, is quite possibly a paleosubspecies of the American coot. The only difference is marginally in size and proportions from the living birds. The modern-type American coot seems to have evolved a few thousand years ago, during the mid-late Pleistocene.
Image Credit: Mikebaird/Wikipedia (CC Attribution 2.0)