The Case for the Coot
August, 2004 issue of Signals from TARSUS
Coot CC, BS, SW, etc.
Eurasian Coot, Fulica atra; American Coot, Fulica americana
Most Ransome readers have seen coots paddling, dabbling, and fighting on lakes,
ponds, marshes, canals, and quiet ocean shorelines. Except for the chalky white
bill, a coot looks rather like a small, sooty-black duck, but coots are more closely
related to cranes and moorhens than to ducks.
Ransome's coot – and the Coot Club's – is the Eurasian Coot, and you
could see a coot just like it (except for the white feather!) almost anywhere in
the Old World – all of Britain, almost anywhere in Europe, and in most of
the rest of the world, even Australia. Similar species fill in the gaps worldwide.
The American Coot looks like the European, except for the head. Our coot has a red
"shield" above the bill and all-black head feathers, but the Eurasian Coot's head
is literally "flashier." The white bill leads to a white shield that blends with
strip of white forehead feathers, so the dark head flashes white when it turns
toward the observer.
One American or European coot looks just like any other coot – shades of
black and gray for males and females alike. A coot with a white wing feather like
the one in the book might seem a rather far-fetched idea, but it's not really at
all unlikely that a coot would show a white wing feather. If you could take a coot
in hand and lift the top (primary) feathers, you would see that each feather in
the second layer is generously rimmed with white. All it would take is for one
feather to be broken or twisted or pulled out in a fight (and coots fight a lot
before the flocks split up to breed).
And there is another reason for the coot to be a good mascot. Why have a mascot
you never see? Coots aren't much disturbed by human presence, and could be seen
in fair numbers where other marsh birds disappeared into the reeds or simply
disappeared into oblivion as marshes were drained, reeds cut, and pressures on
increasingly rare eggs grew worse. They could maintain a population longer than
other marsh birds because they are generalist and opportunistic feeders that eat
anything that comes to hand (or rather, beak), and they have terrific reproductive
success. They lay 4 to 6 eggs and hatch most of them, and if the nest is destroyed
they will re-nest up to four times, though they raise only one set of young in a
season even if the first nesting is successful. Both parents build nests, incubate
eggs, and care for the young. When coot populations begin to decline – and
the Broads coots had declined by the Coot Club's time – you know that the
whole biome is in big trouble! (Compare the Great Northern: 2 eggs, one nesting,
or often none if the nesting birds are disturbed, and they MUST have just the right
nursery pond with lots of small fish to train their babies on.)
The Birder's Handbook says that coots "appear neither comical, vulnerable,
nor inspirational," but they are almost as versatile as monkeys or people and if
you're near a park with a water feature you can take a sack of old bread to a bank
or bridge and spend a pleasant time in the company of coots. Watch them swim and
dive. You might think that such expert maneuverers would have webbed feet like a
duck or a Diver, but coots have a much more interesting and unusual foot*.
are separate, with wide, flat lobes out to the sides of the toes – think of
an oar or a canoe paddle, which can be "feathered" this way or that for maximum
drag on the propelling stroke and minimum on the recovery. The foot is not just
a swim aid – it can help an overheated coot cool down, like a seal's flipper.
And partly because of its versatile foot, coots are quite capable on land and
often "graze" waterside lawns and meadows, where they pick grass and gobble small
invertebrates like snails, slugs, and sowbugs (woodlice to the British and some
U. S. easterners). In water, they eat vegetation and the same kinds of "meat
animals" and not only snap up titbits dropped by other waterbirds but snatch greenery
from the very beaks of ducks and even swans.
Surprisingly, coot relatives include some of the rarest birds, and some of the
most secretive. There are several endangered or threatened cranes, rails and
gallinules, and all are in the same order with coots: Gruiformes. Rails, gallinules
and moorhens (waterhens in Britain) are the closest relatives, in the same
family (Rallidae). Rails are thin as rails seen from back or front (zoologists
say "laterally compressed") and all but invisible when hiding among reeds. "Gallinula"
is the Latin word for a domestic chicken hen, and suggests that moorhens and
gallinules were once considered good eating – you might think better than
the bitterns Old Harry the eeler talks of shooting in The Big Six. Gallinules
and moorhens look like large, flashy-colored coots, though they actually smaller
(but longer legged). Gallinules are solitary and secretive and seldom seen, like
rails, but the Common Moorhen of North America can be seen in the kinds of places
The rest of the story? The Coot Club mascot fades quietly out of the story fairly
early on – and that's what coots do. While they're laying eggs and sitting
on them they are quite nonchalant, but once the chicks hatch, they are experts
at vanishing. Each parent takes part of the family to forage near an edge of the
water where there are reeds or cattails or other tallish inshore plants. If one
parent senses something disturbing there is one call and presto! Each set of birds
disappears into the reeds in a flash. In fall large flocks form, with gangs of
boisterous young hooligans on the outskirts. Coots on water squabble and fight and
in spring try to intimidate or attract other coots by fanning their tails to show
their white rumps. Paintings in bird books show the white feathers under the tail,
but you would never know they were there when you watch a sedately foraging
nesting coot in early summer!
*Feet are as important to a water bird as to a raptor, and no one who's read T. H. White's
The Once and Future King will forget Wart's ordeal with the hawks and the
three questions, each answered by "the foot!"
Endangered and threatened Gruiformes: in the U. S., we all know about the Whooping
Crane. Several species of rail are endangered. In Hawaii, the endemic moorhen and
coot are both endangered. To find out more, check
http://www.earthlife.net/birds/iucn-gruiforme.html (a lovely site for
information on many kinds of wildlife).
Good Reading: The Birder's Handbook, by Erlich, Dobkin, and Wheye. Fireside,
1988. All 720 pages in stock at Amazon for only $14. All the details about nesting
and lifestyle and lovely little essays too.
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