American Coot

Hey guys, welcome back! Waterfowl February continues with a bird that kind of acts like a duck, the American Coot. The American Coot is a member of the Rail family, and is closely related to gallinules and moorhens. Unlike most of its close relatives, the American Coot is much easier to spot, as it prefers open water, often hanging out with ducks, as opposed to sticking to thickly grown marshy areas. American Coots winter in the mid to southern U.S., and breed in the northern part of the country and into Canada, though the further west you get, the more common they are year-round.

Though waterbirds that swim like ducks, coots do not have webbed feet. They have toes with large flaps of skin that are good for walking on uneven, often mucky surfaces, but also have a similar effect as webbed feet under water. Because of this, they are much better at walking and even running on land than a duck could ever hope to be! I had a co-worker in Central Park, Suzanne, that thought they were the cutest things, referring to them as “American Cutes.” I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, but they definitely are cool and peculiar birds.

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American Coot on the ice showing its large, strange, un-webbed feet, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens, NY

As far as plumage, the American Coot is all black, with a red eye, and white, shielded bill that sometimes has red on it. They’re noticeably smaller than Mallards and are somewhat chicken-like in shape. One of their nicknames is Mud Hen (or mudhen), and there’s actually a Minor League Baseball team that uses the coot as a mascot, the Toledo Mud Hens. Although their logo shows a bird colored yellow with an orange bill, more like a chicken.

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American Coot, Central Park, NY

Speaking of nicknames, you may be familiar with the term coot referring to an old man. One of the definitions of coot is “a harmless, simple person.” I couldn’t really find a definitive reason why. The closest explanation I found being that some think of the coot in this way, and thus attached the word to people sharing the same traits. The term, as referring to a person, was coined in the 1700s, while the name referring to the bird goes back to the 1500s. I once met a woman in Central Park who was offended by the term coot for some reason, and urged me not to call the bird a coot, despite the fact that it’s the bird’s species name. She said something about starting a group or something to petition changing the name of the bird. Some people really will get offended by anything.

Though not waterfowl, our next few birds are found near water, and usually have the word “sea” attached to their names. That’s right, we got three gull species next, with the Ring-billed Gull leading the charge! See you all then!

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