Species: American coot
Scientific name: Fulica americana
Claim to fame: Although “old coot” is a common term, many people don’t know what a coot is. The coot is a common waterbird that is often disdained by hunters and observers of waterfowl. This lack of love is probably due to what is considered by many to be an unattractive appearance and also because of the bird’s awkward mannerisms during take-off and early flight. Coots are legal gamebirds in many states, including Missouri. Coots are among the birds that can be hunted during Missouri’s waterfowl seasons. (Check the Wildlife Code of Missouri for details.)
Species status: Coots are common at lakes and wetland areas throughout the state.
First discovered: The first scientific description of the coot was written by the German naturalist Johann Friedrich Gmelin in 1789. Here are a couple of theories pertaining to the origin of the term “old coot:” Since coots were considered to be little more than pests and distractions by waterfowl hunters, the term “old coot” seemed applicable to someone who was an unattractive pest. Because of their awkward take-offs, the term could also suggest an elderly person who is slow and reluctant to move – either physically or philosophically.
Family matters: Coots belong to the bird family Rallidae, although they bear little resemblance to most of the species in this group. Rails, which make up the bulk of the Rallidae family, are secretive marsh birds that have long beaks; coots are social birds that live in flocks and have short, “stumpy”, beaks. Though rails can swim, they are much more adept at wading through shallow water or walking; coots are good swimmers and can often be found in the water.
Length: 13 to 16 inches
Diet: Coots eat small aquatic animals, insects and vegetation found in ponds. Coots have the ability to dive after their food.
Weight: one to slightly under two pounds
Distinguishing characteristics: Adult coots have slate gray (sometimes closer to black) bodies with a thick white bill. The frontal facial shield has a red swelling at its upper edge. Coots vocalize with a variety of clucks, cackles, grunts and other harsh sounds. Coots do not have webbed feet, but do possess long toes with scalloped lobes that enable the bird to swim and dive like a duck and, at the same time, run quite efficiently on land. A coot’s head bobs back and forth when it swims, similar to a chicken when it’s walking. That trait is the source of the bird’s nickname, “mudhen.”
Life span: nine years
Habitat: Coots prefer lakes, ponds and marshy sites that have areas of open water.
Life cycle: Courtship and breeding can begin as early as April and last until July. Nests are built within vegetation near the water’s edge (and sometimes, floating in water). The female lays two to 12 eggs, which are incubated by both parents for 21 to 25 days. After nestlings are cared for in the nest for the first three or four days, they follow the adults into water. They are dependent on the adults for approximately eight weeks after hatching. Coots are migratory and are more abundant in Missouri in fall and winter (when migrants mix with resident birds) than in summer.
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