Coots are the Rodney Dangerfield of birds: they can’t get no respect. Nobody gets excited about seeing them, it seems. Everybody I know who comes back from birding at a wetland will enumerate in breathless detail the herons and sandpipers and ducks they saw… and then as an afterthought add, “oh and a bunch of coots.”
Even my own dad, who loved birds, dismissed them as “mudhens.”
Here’s a whole bunch of reasons to love coots. A lot.
They have all-terrain feet.
Coots are really mobile. They can run fast on land, if they need to—though you’d never know it from looking at them. They swim extremely well, and can dive to a fair depth.
They fly well too—after a fashion. They really need a long runway; you’ll see them flapping and galloping a long way across the water’s surface before finally getting airborne. But once in the air, they’re set.
Part of the secret of their mobility is those amazing feet. They have lobed toes, rather than webbed feet. That is to say, each toe has its own webbing that collapses inward as the foot moves forward in the water, then expands to push against the water as they propel themselves with the foot. It’s a pretty smart system, and awfully attractive to look at, don’t you think?
Coots aren’t fussy about nesting material
These Eurasian coots were nesting just beside a canal in Amsterdam. As you can imagine, there isn’t too much in the way of wetland plants along those canals, so this resourceful coot just made do with what she had.
They make insane noises.
It’s ok if you’ve never really noticed coot calls; you don’t hear much from them in wintertime or when they’re out floating in huge, social rafts on a lake. But get anywhere near where they’re breeding, and you’ll hear the most ungodly series of squawks. It’s fantastic. Have a listen:
Coot babies are outrageous.
Birds tend to have babies in two categories: they can be precocial, meaning they’re all fluffy and mobile and ready to run; or they can be altricial, meaning they’re helpless and naked and ugly.
Coots bridge the two types: their babies are semi-precocial. What does that mean in real life? They’re absolutely adorable. They’re not entirely feathered over, but they’re far from naked. They have little bald heads with sprigs of bright orange feathers around them and honestly I just want to take one home right now.
Coots take no crap.
Coots aren’t terribly big, as waterfowl go. But gutsy? Yes. They’re among the most territorial birds in the pond, and will take on just about anybody who comes their way. They’re cranky—hence the name “old coot” for a cantankerous old man. (I aspire to being an old coot one day.)
One biologist hung out in a Utah marsh tracking which animals coots were willing to attack, and ended up with a list of 11 species of ducks, 16 other species of birds, two species of mammals, and one each of a fish and reptile. Yes, they’ll attack snakes if they look at them the wrong way. And whom do coots fear? Almost nobody, except white pelicans and, of course, Canada geese.
Everyone fears Canada geese.
So next time you visit a pond, take a minute to point your binoculars at a coot. Look for those fantastic feet, and watch how it defends its territory against all who cross its path. If you’re lucky, in late spring, you might catch a glimpse of those gloriously ungainly babies.
Let me brighten your Friday.
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