American Coot

Fulica americana

By Hugh Jennings

  • Length           15-16 in 
  • AOU Band code    AMCO

The American Coot (AMCO) is 15-16" in length. The genus name is Latin for coot and the species name is Latin meaning "of America." Rails and coots belong to the same family, but they represent opposite life styles.

Coots, and their relatives the gallinules, behave like ducks, gathering in flocks, swimming on open water, and walking about on shore. In contrast, rails are solitary and secretive birds, hiding in dense marshes, frequently active at night, and more often heard than seen.

The AMCO is slate black with white on the outer tail feathers. It has an ivory bill with a dark band near the tip. Leg colors range from yellow to orange in adults to greenish-gray in immature birds. It is abundant. To take flight it must patter across the water, flapping its wings furiously, before becoming airborne.

In breeding season it requires fairly shallow, fresh water with marsh vegetation. In other seasons coots may be found in almost any aquatic habitat, including ponds and reservoirs with bare shorelines, open ground near lakes, on salt marshes or protected coastal bays. In our area it may seem that coots are around all year around, but they are only prevalent from fall thru early spring. During the breeding season most of the coots leave for eastern Washington marshy areas.

Coots eat mostly plant material, as well as algae, insects, tadpoles, fish, worms and eggs of other birds. They may dabble on the surface, upend in shallows, dive underwater (propelled by the feet), graze on land and steal food from other ducks.

The nest is built by both sexes as a floating platform of dead cattails, bulrushes and sedges, and is lined with finer materials. The nest is anchored to standing plants. Several similar platforms may be built, with only one or two used for nesting. There are usually 6-11 eggs, sometimes 2-12, which are buff to grayish with brown spots. Incubation by both sexes is 21-25 days. The young can swim well soon after hatching. They follow the parents and are fed by them. The young are usually able to fly about 7-8 weeks after hatching. There may be 1 or 2 broods per year.

Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson

Wild Turkey

Meleagris gallopavo

By Hugh Jennings

  • Length           46 in 
  • Wingspan     64 in
  • Weight          16.2 lbs (7400 g)
  • AOU Band code    WITU

The Wild Turkey being a wary bird and considered a “bird of courage” by Benjamin Franklin is very different from its domesticated relative (Alderfer). Franklin thought so highly of it that he hoped it would become the national bird, but, alas it lost by one congressional vote to the Bald Eagle. Overhunting and loss of habitat in the 19th and early 20th Centuries led to severe population decline. However, intensive conservation efforts have reintroduced the Wild Turkey into areas of open oak woodlands where acorns are its favorite food. There are scattered populations of Wild Turkeys in Eastern Washington.

The Wild Turkey is in the genus Meleagris from the Greek, meleagris, the guineafowl. Its species name is from the Latin gallo, farmyard cock, and pavo, a peacock. The reference is to the physical appearance (Holloway). Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) is credited, or possibly blamed, for naming this bird. At the time the guineafowl was being called a turkey in the mistaken belief that it came from Turkey (Holloway). The bird is endemic to North America with four subspecies in the United States. The Eastern Turkey M. g. sylvestris is the most widespread of the four. In Washington Merriams’s Turkey M. g. merriami will be seen. This subspecies is named for C. Hart Merriam (1890-1938), the director of the Biological Survey Division who collaborated with President Theodore Roosevelt in establishing the first wild bird reservations.

The Wild Turkey is unmistakable in the field. Its small head, long neck and long legs seem oddly attached to its plump body. It is much slimmer than the familiar domesticated turkey. The Wild Turkey’s feathers are a dark, iridescent greenish-bronze (Eaton). The flight feathers and tips of the tail feathers are barred with white. The head and neck have exposed blue-grey skin, the lower portion of which turns pink in the male. The male also has red wattles and sports a black breast tuft or beard. The bill is yellow. The legs are featherless with exposed spurs and very strong. Turkeys will often choose to run from danger. When pressed they will fly and after a running start they can fly strongly, reaching a speed of nearly 60 mph (Eaton). Their longest flight is about one mile, but most of the time they will fly a short distance and coast.

The spurs are used to fight off other males as they compete to attract females. In spring males will gobble early in the day, puff out their chest feathers, spread their tails, and strut as they seek a number of females with whom to mate. The nest is generally a shallow depression on the ground at the base of a tree or under a shrub. Usually there are 10-15 ovate, brown-dotted, whitish eggs deposited. Incubation is by the female only and lasts about a month (Kaufman). The poults leave the nest in a few days and feed themselves. In about two weeks they begin short flights.

Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson

Virginia Rail

Railus Limicola

By Andrew McCormick

  • Length          9 in
  • Wingspan    14 in
  • Weight         2.6 oz (75 g)
  • AOU Band code   VIRA

At 9”, the Virginia Rail is about the size of the King Rail but the coloration of the two birds is almost identical.  It has a rusty breast, strongly barred black-and-white flanks, a streaked olive back, and white undertail coverts.  It is the only small rail in North America with a long bill.  Found mostly in freshwater and brackish marshes, it is also found in salt marshes in winter.  It is a master of concealment and can slip through the thick cover with scarcely a ripple to indicate its movements.  Rails seldom leave the heavy cover and rarely flush, but when they do, the birds make off on fluttery wings with legs dangling, going only a short distance before dropping into the marsh again.  Their distinctive call is a series of kid kid kidick kidick phrases, heard chiefly in breeding season.  They also give a descending series of oink notes.  The best chance to see them locally is in Juanita Bay Park, Mercer Slough or Montlake Fill.

Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson

Brown Pelican

Pelecanus occidentalis

By Andrew McCormick

  • Length           51 in 
  • Wingspan     79 in
  • Weight         8.2 lb
  • AOU Band code    BRPE

The Brown Pelican is a conservation success story. Populations on both the Pacific and Atlantic/Gulf coasts suffered tremendously during the 1960s when all North American pelicans were extirpated outside of Florida. After DDT was banned they made a remarkable recovery and their population may still be expanding (Kaufman). They do not breed in Washington but after leaving the breeding sites in California the birds will migrate northward to Washington waters with some birds arriving in mid-May. Long lines of Brown Pelicans can be seen off the Pacific Coast of Washington in the late summer and fall. They are easily identified by the average person and children love the site of these unique birds.

The Brown Pelican begins breeding in its third year and the species is marked by three distinct plumages: juvenile, breeding adult, and non-breeding adult. In general adults have light heads and dark bellies and juveniles are just the opposite. The adults have a white head with a wide brown stripe along the back of their neck, a yellowish crown, and pink color toward the tip of the bill.  The courting adult will have bright red on the gular pouch close to its neck.  The pouch is dark green most of the year (Alderfer). 

The Brown Pelican is distinctive among the eight pelican species worldwide as it is the only dark colored pelican, only primarily marine species, and the only one that makes spectacular plunge dives when foraging for fish. Once the Brown Pelican catches a fish it will tip its bill to allow the water to drain out and then flip its head back to swallow the fish. Some gulls and terns such as Heerman’s and Laughing Gulls and Roseate Terns will steal fish while the pelican is draining its pouch or dive into the water to catch fish escaping from the pouch. The gular pouch is quite flexible and the pelicans can often be seen stretching their head in display but also possibly to keep the pouch flexible. 

The genus Pelicanus is from the Greek pelekan and the species occidentalis is Latin for western with reference to it being a New World species (Holloway). The Pacific coast subspecies californicus is larger than the Atlantic carolinensis. Brown Pelicans typically breed on islands and build a nest on the ground, a cliff or in low trees such as mangroves. Two to four eggs are deposited and incubated by both parents for about a month. Once hatched the parents feed them until well after their first flight in another 9-12 weeks (Kaufman). The birds are generally silent but will make grunting sounds on the breeding grounds.

The bird has been removed from the national Endangered Species List but is still listed as endangered in California. Although the population has grown past the pre-DDT levels Brown Pelicans are highly susceptible to oil spills, getting tangled in fishing gear and because they eat so many fish, they may have high levels of toxins in their bodies. 

Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson

Ruffed Grouse

Bonasa umbellus

By Andy McCormick

  • Length          17 in
  • Wingspan      22 in 
  • Weight           1.3 lb
  • AOU Band code    RUGR