The American Coot

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.

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American Coot running on the water
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR on tripod
1/6400 f/5.6 ISO 1000 at 500mm
(Click to enlarge any image)

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).

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American Coot with green legs
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR on tripod
1/3200 f/5.6 ISO 1250 at 500mm

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.

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American Coot showing off his fancy feet
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR on tripod
1/1000 f/5.6 ISO 1250 at 500mm

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.

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American Coot meticulously foraging
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR on tripod
1/2500 f/5.6 ISO 2000 at 500mm
Coot and Gallinule range map
Range maps for Coots and Gallinules
Courtesy of All About Birds

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.

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Common Gallinule carefully navigating reeds
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR on tripod
1/1000 f/5.6 ISO 800 at 500mm

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.

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Purple Gallinule stepping out
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR on tripod
1/2500 f/5.6 ISO 1250 at 500mm

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.

One thought on “The American Coot”

  1. Loved this post. Great shots! You’ve expertly taught me to differentiate between three birds I see often, but never identified fully. Thank you.


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