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Almost a Duck
By Steve Bryant, Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries
A single species of waterfowl in Alabama during the winter season outnumbers all other waterfowl species within the state’s borders combined. It is a legal game bird, with a very liberal limit of 15 per day. A few die by the gun, but most die from natural causes. In Alabama, they can be found in great numbers on any large body of water from September through March and are often mistaken for a species of duck. Waterfowl hunters and bird watchers easily recognize this duck look-a-like as a member of the rail family, properly called the American coot. The American coot is the only coot species to inhabit the United States. It is widely distributed from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, and is also common in Canada, Mexico and Central America.
To classify individual wildlife species, systematic zoologists separate and group species based on common characteristics. During this process, coots were grouped with the rails and the gallinules.
Rails and gallinules typically abide in the overgrown edges of the swamps and marshes. Here, they can hide from predators since they are weak flyers. The coot, being more of a duck-shaped bird, 12-16 inches in length, with exceptionally large olive green feet, is less adapted to navigate the tight vegetation at the waters’ edge. Coots instead prefer more open fresh water ponds and lakes, estuaries and saltwater marshes.
At moderate range, coots look like drab colored ducks. True dabbling ducks have an iridescent patch, called a speculum, on the trailing edge of their secondary feathers. Most male dabbling ducks are brightly colored; the females are less distinctly marked. Diving ducks lack this iridescent speculum. They are typically colored in a unique pattern of white and black with some species having a little bright coloration on the head. Coots are almost entirely dull grayish black with only a tinge of olive coloring when the sun hits the feathers just right, nothing impressive. The secondary feathers have a thin band of white at the tip. Unlike a duck, a coot’s feet are not truly webbed.
They are oversized with long toes and lobed flaps of skin along the edges to better propel them when swimming and diving. The base of the coot’s bill has a fleshy frontal shield that is tan with a red spot visible at close range. The bill of the coot is triangular shaped like a chicken’s beak. It is ivory white with a dark ring near the end. This chicken-like bill may account for other common names associated with the coot such as water chicken, mud hen and marsh hen.
Coots can feed like either a dabbling or a diving duck; dabbling for seeds, algae, aquatic insects, and small fish on the open water, or diving to feed on roots of aquatic vegetation, snails and worms. Coots also are adapted to walking on land browsing green vegetation, eating worms and insects but spending most of their time on the water
Hens lay from six to 16 tan colored eggs with dark specks. Unlike most birds, incubation begins with the first egg laid and continues for 20 to 25 days per egg. Coots produce only one clutch of eggs annually. Both the male and female share in incubation and brooding of the young. As the young depart the nest, one parent will continue incubation while the other leads the young. Newly hatched coots are covered with dark colored down with orange or red hair-like feathers on the head and neck.
Coots are easily identified when seen along banks by their peculiar walk. They bob their heads, then twitch and cock their tails, which exposes the white patches of the tail coverts. Some may think the coot has some sort of disability due to the way it jerks its head back and forth, but in reality, it has highly specialized monocular vision that allows each eye to focus on a different object. By bobbing its head, the coot can compensate for the lack of depth perception achieved with binocular vision.
The American coot is the most numerous waterfowl species on the North American continent due to a combination of factors. They are adaptable to a variety of habitats. They nest socially, which reduces predation on the nest and young. As a game bird, they are not generally considered as very “sporting” quarry, nor very attractive, and in most areas are not highly desired as food. As a result, they are seldom harvested.