American Coot Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

This week’s featured species is a water bird that was an iconic migrant in my childhood, appearing in huge, raft-like flocks on Lake Maxinkuckee during the spring and fall migration seasons. Then, we often referred to them by the old hunter’s name: mudhens.

American coot

American coot

Coot, American

This rail relative is a migrant and rare summer resident on Lake Maxinkuckee at Culver, Indiana. They migrate at night, spending time on the lake in large rafts of up to hundreds of birds. Occasionally some come onto shore to graze, but usually they dive for aquatic plants in water 1-15+ feet deep, close to or far from shore. They run on the surface to take off, and their landings are not particularly graceful: they fly to within a couple feet of the surface, stop flying, and plunk into the water. Coots breed in cattail marshes with some open water, making nests in the cattails. Their vocalizations in migration consist of simple soft, high-pitched peeps or chuckling sounds. On breeding grounds they produce a louder, raucous multisyllabic call, commonly in early evening.

Rafting coots, Lake Maxinkuckee

Rafting coots, Lake Maxinkuckee

29NO86. Culver. Coots didn’t steal from canvasbacks, but they weren’t diving, either. They followed the cans around, occasionally reaching for dropped scraps of aquatic plants.

7MR87. Coots have arrived at McKee Marsh, Blackwell Forest Preserve.

27FE00. One seen at McKee Marsh.

Coot on Deep Quarry Lake, West Branch Forest Preserve

Coot on Deep Quarry Lake, West Branch Forest Preserve

12MR00. Several at McKee Marsh.

9NO01. A flock of perhaps 100 coots on Red Rock Lake in Iowa, just above the dam, was in an odd-looking, very tight group with none diving. They stayed that way, appearing to touch or nearly so, for the greater part of an hour. Bald eagles were in the area and may have inspired this unusual formation. It looked especially odd since the lake is very large, and they were far from shore with no other birds on the water nearby.

Coot and gadwall in a Nevada marsh

Coot and gadwall in a Nevada marsh

11NO01. Large numbers of coots were on the Mississippi River and flooded areas beside it, just north of Lock and Dam 13.

20OC02. Many coots have been on Maxinkuckee for weeks. This morning, 2 engaged in an agonistic encounter well off shore, paddling with their feet so as to lift the front parts of their bodies high out of the water, perhaps 60 degrees, facing one another, lifting heads on extended necks in an apparent effort to get beaks above the other, close together, uttering rapid high-pitched clucks.

Coots, Maxinkuckee

Coots, Maxinkuckee

27NO10. Coots had been feeding near shore all afternoon, but as dusk deepened they all moved far off shore.

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2 Comments

  1. December 7, 2012 at 8:38 am

    The coot is a funny bird. Not just because of the name but also the way they move. They always make me laugh:) Nice photos.

    • natureinquiries said,

      December 10, 2012 at 6:51 am

      I agree. Funny voices, too.


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