18-Jan-2020 ~ I was ignoring the groups of dark gray birds swimming and squawking among the reeds in the marsh water. I had my eye on another bird waiting for it to take flight, when there was a loud commotion and splashing. I swung around certain of seeing an alligator having snatched a hapless bird.
I was just in time to see the source of all the noise: one of the rotund dark gray birds was valiantly struggling to take off, running across the surface of the water with a rapid-fire splat-splat-splat-splat.
His stubby wings flapped and his legs pinwheeled… and he finally settled back in the water, having put some distance between himself another annoying bird.
The American Coot is generally dark gray, with a velvety black head, a brilliant ruby red eye, and a maroon-capped frontal shield rising against his forehead from his white bill. Here along the Texas Gulf Coast, American Coots are present all year. Males and females look the same. And all the other species of Coot live on other continents (Wikipedia, of course, has the list for you).
Their green legs help them camouflage among the reeds where they forage.
And look at his toes! The Coots don’t have webbed feet, they have lobed toes. These make the coot a powerful swimmer, as the lobes fold backward on his forward stroke, and fan out on the backward stroke. These feet are well-suited to walking on soft marshy mud. And, of course, they are perfect for running on water.
Coots move slowly through shallow water and vegetation, looking for food. They typically eat plants, but will also eat small insects and water creatures. If you look closely, you can see he has not quite swallowed his latest tasty morsel.
Though Coots often hang out in large multi-species groups with ducks, they are not ducks. They are actually more closely related to Rails, than to ducks. Who knew?! The Rails (Rallidae) are a large and diverse Family of generally ground-living birds; many have short wings for their body size. Some species of Rails are flightless, and the Coots’ penchant for running over flying makes them fit right in.
The Gallinules, also in the Rail Family, are cousins of the Coots, and I’ve seen them intermingled in the same swimming flocks. Trivia note: a group of Coots is a “cover”, and a group of Ducks is a “raft”, but a group of mixed bird species, swimming or flying, is just a “flock” (hat tip to The Spruce).
The Common Gallinule has a very similar body shape. He has a bit more white at the wing, a bright orangey-red bill and facial shield, and green legs… but no lobed toes.
And then, there is the much showier cousin of the American Coot and the Common Gallinule, the Purple Gallinule. Again, we see the common body shape, the stubby bill and the facial shield, and the long toes, perfectly suited for wading across water vegetation. But what a riot of color! And the Purple Gallinule, is a more accomplished flyer, having been found whole continents out of its normal range, in search of suitable habitat.
So, though they appear nondescript from across a pond or bayou, the American Coot has unique and perfectly suited feet. Coots may fly clumsily and infrequently. But running? Now, that, they can do.