Bird Lore: American Coot

Photo by LeRoy Van Hee
Photo by LeRoy VanHee

The American Coot is a hardy and adaptable waterbird. It is related to the secretive rails, but it swims in the open like a duck and walks on shore, even in exposed areas such as golf courses. This bird has strong legs and big feet. When fighting over territorial boundaries, Coots will rear up and attack with their feet. Although usually found in flocks, the Coot can be aggressive and noisy.

The Coot is a common breeding species across North America. It is a year-round resident of the Puget Trough and along the Columbia River from Clark County into Eastern Washington. Its habitat includes ponds, lakes, salt marshes, and slow-moving rivers at lower elevations with vegetation necessary for nesting. When fresh water freezes, the Coot will move to protected salt waters. It is an uncommon but regular Edmonds resident in small numbers. Look for it more reliably at Lake Ballinger. This species also appears from time to time in the Edmonds marsh. During a hard freeze, several may show up inside the Edmonds marina.

When taking flight, the Coot patters across the water, furiously flapping its wings until it becomes airborne. It eats mostly plant materials but also adds insects, fish, tadpoles, snails, and even the eggs of other birds to its diet. It forages in several ways: dabbling on the surface of water, upending in shallows, diving underwater and propelling by its feet, and grazing on land. If all of these feeding methods aren’t sufficient, the Coot will steal food from ducks.

The Coot nests in the tall vegetation of shallow marshes. Its nest is a floating platform of dead cattails, bulrushes, and sedges that is anchored to standing plants. Both sexes incubate the 2-12 eggs. Young Coots can swim well soon after hatching but can not fly until reaching 7-8 weeks of age. The hatchlings look like little clowns. Their dark gray bodies are offset by a ring of yellow fluff around their necks, and red heads ringed in black. They sport prominent red bills and over-sized feet.

Vocalizations of the Coot are many and varied and almost always comical. They include, according to author Pete Dunne, “low clucks, growled mutterings, and bugled grunts, trills, and guffaws.” Listen to some of these sounds at this link.

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell, author of our new “Bird Lore” feature, manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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