American Coot (Birds)

ORDER

Gruiformes

FAMILY

Rallidae

GENUS & SPECIES

Fulica americana
American Coot

KEY FEATURES

• Propels through the water with its lobed feet in search of aquatic plants and animals
• During the breeding season, launches “splatter-attacks” on intruding birds in defense of its nesting territory
• Chicks swim almost immediately upon hatching, but remain with the parents for 7-10 weeks

WHERE IN THE WORLD?

Found in Canada, from British Columbia east to southern Ontario and Quebec and Nova Scotia, south through the U.S. and Mexico to Panama, the West Indies, Costa Rica and Hawaii
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LIFECYCLE

Unlike its elusive rail relatives, the American coot is often seen gracefully swimming in open water and commonly heard defending its territory against invaders.

HABITAT

The American coot frequents both fresh- and saltwater It lives in wetland areas such as rice fields, backwaters, reed-fringed ponds and lakes, open marshes, sluggish rivers and streams, as well as estuaries and bays.During its migrations, the coot is often seen far inland, often at ponds in parks or golf courses. In winter, the American coot is one of the most abundant birds in both North and South Carolina.
A wetland waders A small flock of coots wades in its habitat of choice.
A wetland waders
A small flock of coots wades in its habitat of choice.
An American coot’s age is revealed by its vibrant tarsal (foot) color: green at 1 year, yellow-green at 2 years, yellow at 3 and orange-red at 4 or older.
• In 1896, the Toledo Mud
Hens, a minor league baseball team, got their name from the numerous coots, also called mudhens, that frequented the marshland right next to their ballpark at the time, Bay View Park.
The American coot and the ivory-billed woodpecker are the only North American birds with white bills.

BREEDING

The American coot migrates north from February through May and begins nesting within two weeks of its arrival. However, some birds remain year-round in parts of the U.S. Courtship displays include increased calling and a bowing and nibbling ritual, in which one coot remains still while the other preens its feathers.
Coots are monogomous; they mate on land or on their platform nests, which are built by both sexes from reeds, grasses and cattails.The female usually lays about 9-10 eggs with dark-brown spots, and the pair takes turns incubating the eggs for 21-25 days.The chicks are covered with down and are able to swim and dive soon after hatching, but they return to the nest for frequent brooding and are fed by the parents for two weeks, becoming independent over the next 5-8 weeks. Nesting success is usually over 80%, mainly due to the parents’ steadfast defense of the nest throughout courtship, incubation and fledging.
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► Babes in arms Newborn chicks take time to become independent.


BEHAVIOR

The American coot is extremely noisy and its wetland haunts are often filled with a bustling medley of various calls. Pairs emit a kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk call or coo-coo-coo-coo day and night. Both the herring gull and the black-backed gull prey upon the American coot, and the bird’s calls warn others in the flock of impending danger from attack by such predators.
The coot is extremely aggressive during the breeding season — it staunchly defends its territory against invasions, especially by other members of its species. It uses a combination of distinctive postural displays and attacks, including the “splatter attack” in which the coot charges at an intruder splashing water with its wings.When taking flight, the ungraceful coot taxies for some distance, flapping its wings and noisily kicking and spraying water When an entire flock rises from the water in this fashion, it sounds like a heavy hail or rainstorm. Although the birds have difficulty taking off, they fly for great distances; some birds migrate all the way from Canada to Panama each fall.

FOOD & FEEDING

Though the American coot obtains most of its plant food by dabbling on the water’s surface, the bird also dives and up-ends in water and even grazes on land. Seeds, roots and leaves of pondweeds, water milfoil, burweed, smartweed and banana water lily are favorites, but the bird also eats wild celery as well as sprouting and waste grain.The coot snatches up aquatic animals, including insects, fish, snails and tadpoles. Waterfowl, such as canvasbacks or mallards, often stir up these animals, as well as aquatic plants, while swimming or diving, and the coot follows in their wake. This high-protein animal food is especially important in the diet of a growing coot chick.
► Tasty treat A dabbling coot snatches a quick afternoon snack.
Coot chorus A flock of aggressive coots guards its territory with a chorus of loud calls.
 Coot chorus A flock of aggressive coots guards its territory with a chorus of loud calls.

CONSERVATION

The American coot is currently not globally threatened. In North America, it is considered abundant, and populations have even increased since breeding-ground surveys began in the 1950s. Coots appear to benefit from many waterfowl management activities across the U.S., but wetland loss has reduced numbers in some states, including both Iowa and Minnesota.
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SPLATTER ATTACK

Tread ahead
1 Tread ahead
While patrolling its territory, an American coot spies another coot venturing into its space.
Sight and fight
2 Sight and fight
The coot mounts a splatter attack, running across the water to startle its adversary.
Stab and jab
3 Stab and jab
The two birds begin to fight. One bird lashes out with its feet; the other with its bill.
Beat and retreat
4 Beat and retreat
Splashing the water, the defeated intruder flees.The victorious bird stays in hot pursuit.

PROFILE

American Coot

With its lobed feet and swimming ability, the coot resembles a duck, but is actually the most aquatic member of the rail family.
American Coot

CREATURE COMPARISONS

The giant coot (Fulica gigantea) measures up to 23″ in length, larger than the American coot, and it weighs up to 5.5 lbs. far heavier than its American cousin. Both species have dark, slate-gray plumage, but the giant coot has a deep-red bill with a white ridge and yellow shield, a marked contrast to the American coot’s white bill with its white and red shield. While juvenile giant coots can fly readily, adults cannot because of their weight.Thus, the giant coot has a limited range — south Peru to northwest Argentina.The American coot is abundant throughout North and Central America.
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VITAL STATISTICS
Weight Male 20-30 oz.; female 15-22 oz.
| Length 13-17″
; WlNGSPAN 24-27.5″
Sexual Maturity i j 1 year
| Breeding Season April-July
Number of Eggs 6-15;
usually 9 or 10
incubation Period 21-25 days
Fledging Period 50-75 days
Breeding Interval Up to 2 broods per season
Typical Diet Aquatic plants; also insects and snails
Lifespan Up to 11 years

RELATED SPECIES

• The American coot is one of 11 species in the genus Fulica, which contains the common coot, F. atra, and the Hawaiian coot, F. alai, which was once considered a subspecies of the American coot. These coots are among 133 species of rail, gallinule and coot in the family Rallidae, the largest family in the order Gruiformes. Relatives in the order include buttonquails, cranes and bustards.

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