American Coot

Bird of the Month: American Coot

By Hugh Jennings

PC: Mick Thompson (American Coot)

PC: Mick Thompson (American Coot)

Scientific Name: Fulica americana

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.