What swims like a duck and acts like a duck but doesn’t look like a duck? If you answered coot, then you’re spot on.
The American coot, perhaps one of the least understood and appreciated species of waterfowl, is actually one of the most interesting waterbirds of them all.
Coots are abundant, comical-looking, comical-acting, sociable and vocal. Contrary to legend, they do not hibernate within the muddy bottoms of lakes and other wetlands. In short, coots are worthy of a second, very long look.
I recently attended the Minnesota Chapter of The Wildlife Society’s annual conference in Willmar, Minn. A social event involving a mixer and a silent auction was one of the conference’s activities. There was a wide array of items to bid on, everything from wildlife paintings to bird houses to books and wild rice, but one item in particular caught my eye: a coot decoy.
The all-wood decoy, an Evan’s Decoy Company replica, is as unique as it is beautiful, so I wrote my name on the bid sheet along with my bid. A few more visits to the decoy as the evening wore on, and my upping the ante a tad, I ended up being the lucky winner. My coot decoy now sits in my office for curious visitors to ask me why I have a coot decoy floating on my desk.
American coot are widespread and inhabit most suitable and available wetland habitats all across the continent. More closely related to sandhill cranes and rails than to common ducks such as mallards and wood ducks, coots are nevertheless true waterbirds. Able to dive with ease and swim and float like any duck or goose, coots are common birds throughout most of Minnesota, too.
Curiously chicken-like in appearance and body shape, coots can easily be distinguished from most other species of waterfowl by numerous traits, both physical and behavioral.
What they don’t share in common with ducks and geese is what’s between their toes, namely webbed feet. Instead, coots have lobed toes. These lobes of skin on their very long toes enable coots to paddle through the water with ease, not to mention walking on floating vegetation and mucky environments reasonably well.
Their beaks are white in color and, like a chicken’s, pointed. Moreover, whenever a coot swims and walks, their heads bob back and forth just like a chicken, too. So much of its behavior and body design bespeaks of barnyard chicken fowl, rather than of wild ducks and geese in which the species shares space on marshes everywhere.
Watching coots become airborne can be an amusing spectacle, especially when a large group, or raft as such flocks are also called, take to the air together. Very vocal as the birds emit all kinds of croaks and cackles, coots furiously beat their wings while literally running on the surface of the water for dozens of yards before becoming aloft and in full flight. As coots laboriously gain altitude, their legs jerk ridiculously as their large feet dangle clumsily below them before, at long last, they stretch both feet and legs behind their tails.
Coots are widely known by a couple of nicknames, most frequently mud hens, sometimes marsh hens. In fact a minor league baseball team in Ohio is named for the bird, the Toledo Mud Hens. In parts of Louisiana along the coast, coots are called by their Cajun name “pouldeau”, which is derived from the French word for coot, poule d'eau, meaning, water hen.
Indeed, the American coot will soon be returning to Minnesota once again. Congregating on wetlands and lakes by the dozens, hundreds, sometimes even by the thousands, these mostly vegetarian “water hens” are among our most fascinating species of wild birds, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.