They may swim together, but coots are rails, not ducks.

Most people probably see a group of birds swimming along together and absent-mindedly label them all “ducks“. If you take a closer look, you often see several geese or even swans among them. In many parts of the USA, you may also see the unrelated American coot as well, which looks a lot like a dark duck with a contrasting white bill. If you get close enough, you may even spot its bright red eye!

Can you pick out the birds you think MIGHT be coots, in the pics above and below?
Look for a very dark bird with a white beak or bill.

 
Coots are not actually waterfowl, since they are not a part of the Anseriformes order of birds, which include all the ducks, geese, and swans.
Instead, coots are found in the order Gruiformes, or crane-like birds — and the family Rallidae, or rails. [The seagulls in the pics are in the order Charadriiformes.]

 
Instead of waterfowl’s triangular webbed feet and short legs, coots and other rails have knobby looking toes and longer legs, like in this pic:

 
With those longer legs, coots are better at walking and running than any of the waterfowl — but they are not as good at flying! In fact, their wings are shorter and more rounded than ducks and geese.
 
Almost all coot species are black in color, and they all have a featherless “shield” on their foreheads. In the 1400s people even used the phrase “as bald as a coot”, LOL.

 
There are about ten different species of coot, all in the genus Fulica. The American coot is found throughout the United States and Mexico, as well as southern Canada and all of Central America. The Eurasian or common coot lives in a band extending all the way from Morocco and western Europe, all the way across to Japan in the far east, and down into parts of India and even Australia!
 

 
Coots eat mostly plant material, but also some eggs, fish, and small animals. Newly hatched coots are quite strange looking, as you can see in the pics below. Their parents feed them insects, but many starve to death in the first week of life. Baby coots are a rarity in nature because so many are born and so few survive — not due to being eaten like most species, but because of parental neglect and abuse! Is it just a coicidence that they are so ugly, and treated so badly?
 

    Take a look at the collection of coot pics below, and see if you can spot:

  • newly hatched coots with reddish heads
  • older, fluffier coot chicks that obviously survived
  • bulby-looking coot feet
  • characteristic coot dark body and white bill

 
More about coots:
Wikipedia
Common Coot (videos!)
Mystery Bird: Common Coot
American Coot Info
All About Birds
Audubon
American coot pics: EOL
Caribbean Coot on ARKive
Common coot on ARKive
Giant coot!

 

 

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