Foam Lake Birding No. 20

No. 20
One of our most common and numerous water birds is the American Coot. Once again, the word, American, is added to the name to separate it from a very similar and closely related European species. Because it is the only coot in Canada, it will be referred to simply as the Coot. It is also known by a variety of nicknames; one of which, used locally, is the Mud Hen.
In Saskatchewan, Coots are summer residents only. Presently, they are congregating in flocks on larger sloughs in preparation for fall migration. However, they are not highly migratory flying south only as far as the nearest ice-free water. As a result, they tend to hang around moderately late into the fall until the sloughs start to freeze – about the Thanksgiving Weekend. On their wintering grounds, they tend to remain in rather large flocks (rafts) on coastal bays as well as bodies of fresh water. In much of the USA, the Coot is a year round resident.
The Coot is a dark grey, almost black (slate), bird of marshes and sloughs. It is almost exactly the same colour as the Slate-colored race of the Dark Eyed Junco. With its pure white bill contrasting sharply with its slate body, it is quite easy to identify, even with the naked eye. Males and females are the same. Another notable feature is its swimming style; it moves its head back and forth much like a walking horse or, as previously mentioned, a Brewer’s Blackbird. No other duck-sized marsh bird does this. Even though it is very duck-like in its behavior (it even has partially webbed feet), it is related to cranes and not ducks or geese at all! It could be described as a little crane that likes to swim. Like a crane, it likes to leave the water and graze on shore. Unlike a crane, a Coot seldom, if ever, flies out to graze; rather, it walks to its grazing grounds. We do not see this activity locally because the young are reared solely on the water and the parents have to stay close; on their wintering grounds, with no youngsters to take care of, Coots will wander quite some distance inland. In some areas in the southern USA, they have become a bit of a nuisance on golf courses. This week’s picture was taken on salt water off South Padre Island in Texas.
Both, the males and females, share “household” duties. The mated pair builds a floating nest made of reeds and rushes that is anchored in place by attaching it to some bulrushes. Quite often, these nests will survive the winter and provide nesting platforms for other marsh birds, such as the Black Tern, the following spring. Both parents take care of the young that, like ducks or geese, take to the water within hours of hatching. Coots are very territorial and pugnacious, and it is a common sight to see one male chasing a rival out of his territory.
In Saskatchewan, the Coot is considered a game bird, and as such, can be legally hunted during hunting season. However, it is in no danger of being over-hunted as it is not considered to be a desirable game bird by sportsmen for several reasons. First, it is not the best tasting of wild game. Having tried it myself, I would rank it below that of a Shoveler. Second, most game bird hunters like to shoot a bird in flight. Not only does this practice provide a challenge to the hunter, but it gives the game bird a good chance of getting away. Unless frightened, Coots very seldom fly during the day, because unlike ducks, they do not fly anywhere to feed. Rather, they stay put in one slough for the summer diving from the surface of the water to catch small water creatures underwater, and walking short distances on land to graze. In other words, all the necessities of life are at hand, thus eliminating the need to go somewhere else. Once a Coot does decide to fly, it must patter along the surface of the water for some distance in order to reach flight speed – much like a modern airplane. Why? It is too heavy for the size of its wings to “jump” out of the water the way a duck does.
In the summer almost any marshy slough will harbour a family of Coots. On summer evenings (and nights), their distinctive “crrrucking” sounds carry a long way, and can be heard within the town itself. In the fall, they are much quieter, but can be readily observed in sloughs along highways. It makes for easy birding.