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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Coots are social birds that raft up for protection. © Jack Bartholmai
Coots are social birds that raft up for protection.

© Jack Bartholmai

December 2005

Bobbing heads in the crowd

Rafting coots are a sure sign of fall.

Kathryn A. Kahler

The morning commute to my office in Madison gets pretty monotonous. A new billboard is often the only remarkable thing I see. That's why I'm always delighted when I pass Lake Monona in the spring or fall and see migrating waterfowl. The loons, scaup or mergansers are truly special, but I always chuckle on that mid- to late-November morning when I spy a dense raft of bobbing black birds close to shore. The coots are back! I'm not sure why I find them amusing – maybe it's just the name.

The American coot (Fulica americana) is a common migratory bird that breeds throughout much of the U.S., including Wisconsin. Some coots are found year-round in the southeast corner of the state. The birds passing through Wisconsin in the fall likely take a route from their breeding marshes in the prairies of western Canada or northern plains states to their wintering grounds in freshwater marshes along the Gulf of Mexico or Atlantic coastal areas.

Coots appear duck-like in the water but are actually more chicken-like in their onshore appearance. They have dark, slate-gray, rounded bodies with small black heads, brilliant red eyes and greenish-yellow legs. A small reddish-brown shield tops the white, banded bill. Members of the family that include gallinules and rails, coots don't have webbed feet, but instead have widely lobed toes that help them get around as easily on water as walking through the mud. Hence, they are often called "mud hens." Males and females look alike, and immature birds look similar but are lighter in color.

Coots also cluck and cackle like chickens and are seemingly awkward fliers. To become airborne, they must get a running start (or "patter") across the water, usually fly a short distance and come to a clumsy, splashing landing. Once airborne in their nighttime migratory flights, however, they are capable fliers.

The coot's eating habits are described as opportunistic. Opportunity sometimes presents itself in the form of leftovers from other dabbling ducks, or pirated plants brought to the surface by diving ducks. They are also perfectly capable of finding their own food, including snails, insects, worms, and a variety of aquatic and terrestrial plants. Coots are stridently territorial and are known to grab opponents with one clawed foot while trying to slap them with the other, at the same time pecking the hapless birds with their bills.

Coots do a lot of splashing around to attract attention during the mating season and to discourage predators. They will "raft-up" in tightly packed masses to avoid predation by bald eagles and osprey. The "safety in numbers" theory is at play in this behavior, I suspect.

Mating occurs in May and June. Almost all aspects of raising the family are shared by the monogamous pair. The birds select a nest site over water in tall, concealing vegetation. The nest is a cup-shaped mass of dead vegetation, lined with fine grasses, and anchored to live plants. About eight to 12 pinkish, spotted eggs are laid and incubated by both the female and male for about 23 days. Coots have been found to have extremely high levels of brood parasitism, where birds lay eggs in another's nest to avoid having to raise the young themselves. In the case of coots, this parasitism is intraspecific, or within their own species. To combat this rampant behavior, recent research has found that female coots are adept at recognizing and even counting their own eggs. They reject the parasitic eggs by burying them deep in the nest or pushing them to the outside so they hatch later, decreasing the chance of survival of the parasitic chicks.

So while the coot may not have the best reputation in the marsh, they are indeed very interesting birds, and I look forward to each fall when they re-appear and brighten my morning commute.

Writer Kathryn A. Kahler is also production and circulation manager for Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.