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A chapter from the electronic book:  Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds

American Coot
Fulica americana  

[Published in 1927: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 135: 358-371]

Except in the northeastern states and provinces, where it occurs only as a migrant and not very commonly, everybody who knows birds at all is familiar with the plainly dressed, but exceedingly interesting, coot or "mud hen" or "blue Peter." For it enjoys a wide distribution over most of the North American continent, in which it is very abundant at some seasons of the year in all suitable localities, breeding from the "fur countries" to the West Indies and resident the year round in the southern part of its range.

I first became acquainted with this curious bird in the North Dakota sloughs, those wonderful wildfowl nurseries of the western plains, teeming with a varied bird life in which the coot played a prominent part, as a conspicuous, noisy, and amusing clown. Among the flocks of ducks, floating on the open water, a few of the somber, gray birds, with black heads and conspicuous white bills, were always in evidence; they were constantly startling us by splashing and spattering off over the water, as we started them from the reedy borders; and to the ceaseless din made by the rhythmic notes of countless yellow-headed blackbirds, the loud, guttural voices and varied calls of the coots played a fitting accompaniment. They were never quiet and their antics were often entertaining.

Spring.--The coot is a hardy bird and an early spring migrant, pushing on northward as fast as advancing spring melts the ice in the ponds, often arriving while there is still some ice. M. P. Skinner tells me that, in Yellowstone Park, "they come just as soon as the ponds begin to melt"; he has seen them there as early as April 11. A. D. Henderson has known them to reach northern Alberta, Lac La Nonne, as early as April 16. He has seen them at Bear Lake when "the lake was still full of ice, but there was a narrow strip of open water along the shore on which were thousands of ducks with the coots and a few Canada geese."

Courtship.--The best account of the courtship of the coot is given by Dr. Alexander Wetmore (1920) as he observed it at Lake Burford, New Mexico, as follows:

Many were in pairs on the date of my arrival, but until June 5 small flocks of unmated birds remained feeding in the open bays or rested in little bands on open beaches. Toward the latter part of this period these flocks at short intervals presented a scene of great animation as the birds displayed and fought savagely with one another. A little later on the companies broke up entirely. Each male selected an area of shore line in the tules and remained near this constantly, guarding it jealously, taking frequent occasion to drive away ducks and eared grebes who might chance to trespass, and having many fights with neighboring males. In these encounters they drove at each other with heads extended on the water and wing tips elevated. When near they began striking viciously with their bills and then, lying back, struck heavily first with one large foot and then the other, a most effective means of fighting as their claws were long and sharp, and their leg muscles powerful. Each tried to guard against these blows by seizing the feet of his antagonist so that often the two held each other by means of their feet, while they thrust savagely with their bills. The females frequently took part in these squabbles also, so that sometimes three or four birds were engaged, at one time, while neighboring males came rushing up also seeming minded to interfere. When they separated the males sometimes rested for several minutes with heads down on the water and wing tips raised, eyeing each other like two game cocks.

Their mating actions were interesting. Males frequently rushed after females, paddling over the surface of the water with flapping wings, while the females made off in the same manner, 10 feet or so ahead. Frequently the females made merely a pretense at escape, striking out with their feet and making a great splashing but traveling slowly, but if too closely pressed they dove, leaving the males looking about for them on the surface. In the most common act of display the male came paddling out with head and neck prostrate on the water, wing tips raised high above the tail, and the tail spread and elevated so that the white markings on either side were very prominent. As he came near the female usually assumed the same attitude. When 2 or 3 feet away the male turned and presented the prominently marked tail to the female, swimming off slowly and returning to repeat the performance. This action was seen constantly whenever coots were under observation. Paired birds often swam toward one another from a distance of several feet with heads extended on the water calling "kuk kuk kuk kuk." As they met they assumed a more erect attitude and then as they brushed against one another and turned about they dabbled in the water with quick jerks of the open bill that threw drops of water from side to side. Frequently the female reached over and worked her bill gently through the feathers on the male's head and then lowered her head while he preened her feathers in return.

Nesting.--The same observer says in regard to nest building:

In building, the female arranged the dead stems of the round stalked Scirpus occidentalis to form a platform, bending them over and striking them repeatedly with her bill to make them stay in position, causing a peculiar knocking, hammering noise that at this season was to be heard in the rushes on all sides. Frequently the first one or two eggs of a set were laid on a mere platform and the completed nest built up later, depending perhaps upon the need of the female for a place to deposit her eggs. A complete set of seven eggs with incubation begun was seen on June 7 and after this sets were common. The males seemed to take no part in nest building, but stood about in the rushes a few feet away. This guard continued as the eggs were laid and incubation began. When the females were on the nest it was amusing, as I approached slowly in the boat, to see the males stalk truculently down and slide into the water, eyeing me closely all the while. Frequently at this season they rose on the surface of the water, treading heavily for a few strokes, making a loud turmoil in the water and driving themselves backward for a foot or more with the force of the effort, apparently a threatening act intended to frighten away an intruder.

I made my first acquaintance with the nesting habits of the coot in Nelson and Steele Counties, North Dakota, in 1901; since then I have seen many coots' nests, for it is an abundant bird in all suitable prairie sloughs. The nests are usually partially, or well, concealed in the bulrushes (Scirpus) or flags (Typhus) about the borders of the sloughs or marshy ponds; sometimes the nests are in plain sight near the edge, or in an isolated clump; occasionally one is seen in an entirely open situation with no concealment whatever. The nest is usually a floating structure, under which one could pass the hand without obstruction, but it is generally firmly attached to growing reeds or flags, to prevent drifting. Whatever material is most readily available, bulrushes, flags, reeds, or grass, is used and firmly woven into a substantial basket; the inner cavity, which is hollowed just enough to hold the eggs, is neatly lined with pieces of dry flags or other smooth material. An average nest, well concealed in a thick clump and containing 10 eggs, measured 14 inches in outside and 7 inches in inside diameter, the rim being 8 inches above the water. A larger nest, in a more open situation and containing 15 eggs, measured 18 inches outside and 7 inches inside, but the rim was only about 4 inches above the water. The largest nest I ever measured contained only 9 eggs but was 20 by 15 inches in outside diameter and built up 7 inches above the water. These are normal types.

John G. Tyler writes to me that he found about 15 pairs of coots nesting in a shallow pond of about 40 acres near Fresno, California, on June 18, 1917; the nests were "all built of green wire-grass stems and anchored in patches of grass in water averaging a foot deep."

Robert B. Rockwell (1912) describes several other types of nests found in the Barr Lake region, Colorado, as follows:

In the large number of nests examined were found a wide variation in construction and location. Most of the nests were built well out toward the edge of the cat-tails over water 3 or 4 feet deep, others were built in close to shore in very dense cat-tail thickets. One nest was found built on dry ground, another fully 2 feet above the ground on a platform of dead cat-tails, with a neat runway leading up to it; and still another nest fully 4 feet above ground in the lower branches of an apple tree, the water of the lake having receded that much after having inundated the orchard. Two nests were seen far out on open water that were readily visible at a distance of 100 yards. One nest was found that looked exactly like a grebe's nest; another was built entirely of weed straws; still another entirely of freshly cut green cat-tails and one over deep water was made entirely from green moss brought up from the bottom of the lake.

Eggs.--The number of eggs in a coot's nest varies from half a dozen to two or three times that number; normal sets usually run from 8 to 12 eggs; as many as 16 or even 22 have been recorded, probably the product of more than one bird. The shape of the eggs varies but little from ovate, but they are often quite pointed. The shell is smooth with a very slight gloss. The ground color varies from dull "pinkish buff," rarely, to "cartridge buff," which is the usual color. It is thickly and evenly covered with very small spots and minute dots of very dark, or blackish, brown. The measurements of 122 eggs average 49 by 33.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 53 by 32.5, 52 by 36, and 41.5 by 30 millimeters.

Young.--The period of incubation is 21 or 22 days. It is shared by both sexes and the male often stands on guard while his mate is sitting. The eggs are apparently laid on successive days and incubation is continued more or less regularly during the laying period, for one, or sometimes two, young birds hatch each day during the hatching period. The young are decidedly precocial, leaving the nest soon after they are hatched and swimming about in the vicinity; they can swim and dive almost as well as their parents and their ability to remain under water is astonishing. Grinnell, Bryant, and Storer (1918) say: "In two instances youngsters not more than a day old were observed to remain under water nearly three minutes as timed by a watch. They could be seen clinging to vegetation beneath the surface until apparently forced to come up for air."

Dr. Joseph Grinnell (1908) writes:

A quite significant and interesting fact was noted in that the feet of the young grew far more rapidly in proportion than the rest of their body. A half-grown mud hen has astonishingly large feet, and after observing the ease with which the youngsters swam and dived (apparently just as well as the adults), the relative importance of those members to the early success of the individual seemed plain. The young of a family near camp returned with both parents to the old nest each evening at dusk, but much squabbling and jostling, accompanied by various toots, grunts, and cries, took place before they were all finally settled for the night.

Plumages.--The downy young coot is a grotesque but showy little chick; a black ball of down with a fiery head. The almost bald crown is but thinly covered with hairlike black down; the upper parts are thickly covered with glossy black, long, coarse down, mixed with long, hairlike filaments, which vary in color from "orange chrome" on the neck and wings to "light orange-yellow" on the back; the lores, chin, and throat are covered with short, stiff, curly hairs, varying in color from "flame scarlet" to "orange chrome"; the bill is "flame scarlet," with a black tip; the under parts are thickly covered with dense, furlike down, very dark gray to almost black, with whitish tips.

While raising young ducks and coots from eggs in Manitoba we had a good chance to study their development. The young coot grows rapidly, especially the feet and legs, which soon seem out of proportion; but it is slow in assuming its plumage. The first, light grayish plumage appears on the breast when the bird is about 4 weeks old and about one-third grown; it is still covered with dark, sooty gray down and the orange hairs have not wholly disappeared. The wings do not start to grow until it is at least 2 months old. In this full juvenal plumage the upper parts vary from "hair brown" to "chaetura drab" more brownish on the back; the chin, throat and neck are "deep neutral gray," mottled with grayish white; and the under parts are mottled with neutral grays and whitish.

During the fall and winter a gradual molt of the contour plumage produces steady progress towards maturity; but traces of immaturity persist all through the first year; young birds have much more white in the under parts, chin, throat, and belly, and they have not yet developed the white bill and frontal shield. The young bird becomes practically adult after the first postnuptial molt, when over a year old. Adults have a complete molt in August and September and a very limited, partial prenuptial molt in the early spring.

Food.--The coot is quite omnivorous, living on a varied bill of fare at different seasons. Most of its food is obtained on, under, or near the water of its marshy haunts; but it is no uncommon sight to see it walking about on the marshy shores or even on dry land picking up its food in a lively fashion after the manner of domestic fowl. Sometimes far from the water it may be seen in flocks clipping off the green grasses in the meadows or pulling up the sprouting grain on cultivated land. It feeds largely on leaves, fronds, seeds and roots of aquatic vegetation, such as pond weed (Potamogeton), the tops of water milfoil (Myriophyllum) and the seeds of bur reed (Sparganium). Much of this food must be obtained by diving to moderate depths, at which it is an expert. It is very fond of wild celery, some of which it steals from the canvasbacks and other ducks. In the great duck shooting resorts of Virginia and North Carolina coots congregate in enormous numbers in winter to feed on wild celery and the foxtail grass, both favorite duck foods. In California, according to John G. Tyler (1913), it still further annoys the duck hunters by eating the grain thrown out to attract the ducks. In some duck clubs coots have become such a nuisance that mud-hen shoots have been inaugurated, at which sometimes as many as 5,000 coots have been killed in a day. Dr. Alexander Wetmore (1920) has seen a coot, at Lake Burford, "eating algae and slime that had collected on dead tule stems floating in the water. It fed eagerly on this material seizing and stripping one piece after another."

Its animal food includes some small fishes, tadpoles, snails, worms, water bugs and other insects, and their aquatic larvae. It has even been known to pluck the feathers off and partially eat dead ducks. A bird, dissected by Doctor Wetmore (1926) in Puerto Rico, had eaten "a number of small crustaceans, and a large mass of eggs belonging probably to other crustaceans"; another "had eaten a large quantity of grass or sedge, with a few small roots."

Behavior.--There is much that is interesting in the behavior of the coot, characteristic of and peculiar to this curious bird. The name of "spatterer" has often been applied to it on account of its well-known habit of rising noisily from the water; running along the surface, it beats the water with wings and feet, splashing alternately with its heavy paddles and making the spray fly, until it gains sufficient momentum to fly; it has been suggested that this and other noisy splashing antics are of use to frighten its enemies or warn its companions. When well under way its flight is strong and direct, much more vigorous and swifter than the flight of gallinules; the neck is extended, with the conspicuous white bill pointing slightly downwards, and the feet are stretched out behind, with the toes pointing upwards, to serve as a rudder in place of the useless little tail. The white tips of the secondaries show up well in flight as a good field mark. It flies usually near the water, or 10 or 15 feet above it, and seldom makes long high flights except when migrating. It is much more likely to escape by swimming or by scurrying off over the surface than by rising and flying away as the ducks do. It is ordinarily not a shy bird, unless persistently hunted.

It is a strong rapid swimmer, floating higher in the water than the ducks or the gallinules, with the back more level, less submerged forward. When either swimming or walking it nods its head in step with its foot movements, like a dove or a hen. Its white bill, in contrast with its black head, fairly gleams in the sunlight, an excellent field mark.

On land the coot walks about actively, often in a hunched-back attitude suggestive of the guinea fowl; its lobed feet give it a firm footing on soft ground, but do not impede it on firmer soil. Dr. Charles W. Townsend has noted that it folds its toes as it lifts its foot. Audubon apparently had never seen it dive, but it is now well known to be a good diver, to obtain its food and to escape its enemies. Dr. Townsend (1905) says that it "often goes under water with very little effort; at other times it leaps clear of the water like a grebe, with its wings pressed close to its sides, its body describing an arc, and the head entering as the feet leave the water."

I have often observed the peculiar antics of a coot when its nest is approached; with head lowered until the bill almost touches the water and with wings elevated behind like a swan's, it paddles about splashing loudly and grunting a loud guttural "kruk, kruk, kruk"; it often "backs water" vigorously with both feet, raising the body backwards out of the water. Sometimes it stands upright on its hind quarters, flapping its wings and splashing with both feet. Such noisy demonstrations may be due to nervous excitement or may be intended to scare us away.

Coots associate on their breeding grounds and in their winter quarters with various species of ducks, with which they mingle freely and never seem to quarrel. But with members of their own species they are often very pugnacious and sometimes murderous. F. W. Henshaw (1918) tells the following remarkable story:

Our boathouse rests in a cut opening out on Butte Slough, in Colusa County, California. Between the end of the boathouse and the current of the slough, there are 60 or 80 feet of still water; three mud hens (Fulica americana) have taken possession of this spot. They have grown quite tame; not only do they come up to the boathouse for their food, but when hungry swim up and are clamorously insistent with their "put-put-put." The men have frequently told me that they were murderous fighters against their own kind, and one day I was a witness of such a fight. A strange mud hen swam from the creek into the quiet water. The first of the three to see him attacked the stranger at once, "putting" harshly, and the intruder gave battle without the slightest attempt to retreat. They pecked at each other savagely. The other two boathouse mud hens swam up to the fray, one of them joining in, the other, the smallest of the three and probably the female, simply looking on. In time they pecked the strange mud hen into a state of exhaustion. It was manifestly too weak to fly, but tried to make its escape by swimming. They followed it up, and one actually stood on its body while the other held its head under the water until it was dead. When satisfied of this, they left it.

Coots indulge in quite a variety of grunting, croaking, and squawking notes and are responsible for most of the noise coming from the innermost recesses of a slough or tule swamp. Rev. J. H. Langille (1884) says:

It is decidedly a noisy bird, its "coo-coo-coo-coo-coo" being heard both day and night, the first note being prolonged on a much higher key, while the rest are somewhat accelerated. It will often "squack" similar to a duck, and has other notes too unique and difficult of description to be given here.

Mrs. Florence Merriam Bailey (1910) gives a very good idea of the notes as follows:

As we walked along behind the tule hedge a confusion of most remarkable sounds came from the tules where invisible coots were swimming about--coughing sounds, froglike plunks, and a rough sawing or filing "kuk-kawk-kuk, kuk-kawk-kuk," as if the saw were dull and stuck. Often there was just a grating "kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk." But all the mixed medley had the sound of good fellowship, and, too, open fearless disregard of who might be passing the other side of the tule screen--for who wanted coots?

Enemies.--On the Atlantic coast and in Florida, where bald eagles are common, these cowardly birds of prey seem to be the coots' worst enemies. C. J. Maynard (1896) writes:

The eagle hovers over a bunch of coots and endeavors by diving down towards the flock to make them scatter. The eagle will never attack a coot when surrounded by its fellows, but the instant one is separated from the flock his life is in jeopardy, for, no matter how expertly he dives, his untiring enemy is above him whenever he comes to the surface, and drives him further and further from his friends, who will never attempt to protect him, but who swim away as fast as their lobated toes would propel them. But the chase, unequal in the outset, soon ends--the exhausted coot rises for the air which it must have, when like a thunderbolt falls the eagle and the lifeless waterfowl is borne away to satisfy the hunger of the eaglets who are waiting, expectant, in their stick-built home in the high top of some neighboring pine. I have never seen the coots attempt to defend themselves even when in a body, in fact, they always dive and scatter somewhat when the eagle comes swooping downward toward them, but quickly gather again as soon as they rise. The reason why the eagle tries to separate one coot from its fellows must be that he can then trace that particular bird, and by chasing it until it is exhausted, effect its capture, whereas it would quite easily elude him if it kept among its fellows. Among coots, their safety lies in numbers, even if all be cowards, but the wonder is, not that the eagles know this, but that the coots themselves do.

But the eagle is not always successful. The following incident is related by Moses Williams, Jr., in a letter to Dr. Charles W. Townsend:

An eagle after putting a large flock of ducks and geese to flight in the usual way, approached a flock of some 200 coots. They crowded together so that from our boat they appeared to be a solid black mass. When he came over them, he dropped from a height of about 25 yards to with a few feet. He did not swoop, but rather comparatively slowly, pointed his flight downward. Immediately the coots set up such a splashing that the black spot was converted into a mass of white spray. The eagle hovered over them for a moment, apparently looking for an individual to strike at and then passed on. The splashing ceased only to begin again as he turned and again stooped and the same thing happened three more times and then the eagle gave it up and in two minutes the coots were again in open formation and swimming about and feeding in their usual animated way. We were all quite sure that the flock made no attempt to get away, but did their splashing throughout on the same spot. It seemed to me a very intelligent performance on the part of a bird, which could not escape by flying or diving as the other fowl can.

Fall.--The hardy coots not only arrive early in their northern homes, but they are loath to leave in the fall, lingering often until they are driven out by the freezing of lakes. They gather into immense flocks before leaving and hold noisy conclaves, as if discussing the propriety of departure. On the morning after such a caucus the lake is usually deserted, all having gone during the night. Sometimes they linger too long and may be seen crowded in a dense black mass, perhaps mingled with the hardier ducks, in some unfrozen water hole in the ice. The fall migration takes the coots to southern lakes and even to brackish estuaries near the coasts where they mingle with the ducks and are often shot as game. But they are hardly worthy to be classed as game birds; they are too easy to kill and their flesh is not highly regarded. "Blue Peters," as they are called, are good game for boys and they help fill the pot when other game is scarce. While camping in Florida we often found them a welcome addition to our larder, as they are clean feeders and quite palatable.

Winter.--Below the frost line, from California to Florida, coots are very abundant in all suitable lakes, ponds, bayous, marshes, and marshy rivers, all through the winter, where they are highly gregarious. But they are seldom seen on salt water. Mr. Maynard (1896) writes:

The coots are remarkably abundant in the little ponds and lagoons on the marshes which lie to the eastward of Indian River, Florida. Here they have the habit of gathering together in a nearly solid mass in the middle of the body of water on which they float and it is exceedingly difficult to make them leave one of these chosen resorts. Even when shot at those that are uninjured will frequently remain while those which do fly, generally circle around about and after a time return. I remember once of walking along the margin of a narrow creek near Mosquito Lagoon, with my assistant, when we encountered a large body of coots. At the point where we found them the creek was only about 10 yards wide, and as we could walk faster than the birds could swim, we were soon abreast of them, but although we were so close to them none of them attempted to fly, but as we passed the first portion of the flock, the coots of which it was composed turned and swam back, then, sheeplike, all followed, and we stood still while hundreds of them swam past us. As the birds were crowded together, somewhat, their ranks were quite wide so that the nearest birds were only a few feet away.

Back Bay, Virginia, is a favorite winter resort for coots where they find an abundant food supply in the seeds and tops of the foxtail grass and other duck foods and where they steal the wild celery from the canvasbacks and redheads. I thought I had seen coots in Florida, but that was as nothing compared with the countless thousands that I saw here in November. There were acres and acres of them spread out over the smooth waters of the bay in vast rafts. They were much tamer than any of the ducks and geese; even these big flocks allowed our power boat to approach almost within gunshot; and then they only pattered or flew away for a short distance and then settled down again, thus making a pathway for us through the vast flocks.

 


American Coot*
Fulica americana

*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1927. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 135: 358-371. United States Government Printing Office

 


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