American Coots

American Coots

It’s likely that the very first animal you encounter when you enter McNary National Wildlife Refuge is the American coot, also known as a mud or marsh hen. Somewhere around 6,000,000 coots inhabit wetlands and placid waters throughout North America, and it often seems like half of them are at McNary.

Most people think coots are ducks. They’re actually a member of the rail family. Instead of webbed feet like ducks, coots’ feet have large, lobed scales on their feet. They actually have toes, which fold back with each step to help them walk on dry land. But unlike much of the rest of the rail family, coots are not secretive and are readily seen in open water.

By the way, coots learned the nicknames “marsh hen” and “mud hen” because of they way their heads bob when they walk or swim—like a chicken’s head.

Here’s another odd bit of trivia about American coots: They have a multitude of group names, including “codgery,” “commotion,” “fleet,” “shoal,” “swarm,” “cover,” or “raft” of coots.

Unfortunately, coots get little respect. They don’t have birding clubs devoted to them. People never seen to care about seeing them in the wild. In many areas, farmers consider them pests. Upwards of 890,000 are killed annually, mainly as an agricultural pest or for sport, although rarely are coots eaten.

But coots are actually amazing, adaptable creatures, and we hope that when you read the next couple of pages, you’ll agree.

American Coot & Chick



The Stats:
     Length: 13-17 inches
     Wingspan: 23-28 inches
     Weight: 0.9-1.4 pounds for females, 1.3-1.9 pounds for males
     Age: 10 years or more, the oldest being over 22 years

A medium-sized bird, about the size of a small chicken, coots have dark gray to black bodies. But it’s the accessories that set them apart. In bold contrast to their feathers, coots sport bright yellow to orange legs and feet and a bright white, triangular-shaped bill. While the male is slightly larger, the difference is so slight that unless they’re side-by-side, the sexes are indistinguishable. The female does sound a bit different, but again, it’s hard to tell the difference among the wide variety of sounds a coot makes—a litany of grunts, squawks and croaks.

While the adults are an attractive bird, the juveniles have a look only a mother could love. Young coots have bald, red heads with dull gray plumage. Speaking of young . . .

American Coots Fighting



Although gregarious for much of the year, during the breeding season, which runs from April to July in North America, coots form monogamous pairs with fiercely defended territories. Exceptionally aggressive during this period, the male repels intruders and marks its territory by patrolling, charging and water splashing. However, this doesn’t always work, and fighting is common, during which coots attack by striking with their bills and slashing with claws.

Coot nests are almost always built over water on floating platforms anchored to upright reeds or plant stems. Nests are usually well-hidden in dense stands of living or dead vegetation such as reeds, cattails, bulrushes, sedges and grasses. The nesting material is woven into nests that are typically around 12 inches in diameter. One interesting construction element is the addition of a 12-15 inch ramp that allows the parents to enter and exit without tearing the sides of the nests. Coots will often build multiple egg nests before selecting the perfect one in which to lay their eggs.

Coots are quite prolific, with the clutches often consisting of 8-12 eggs, and there may be up to 2 broods per year. The 1-3/4 to 2-1/4 inch eggs hatch after 21-25 days (both parents do the incubation), and the young are ready to leave the nest in as little as six hours and be on their own in three to ten weeks. Coots are determined to nest; if a clutch is lost, up to 70% of the time coots will re-nest within two days if the nest is lost during egg laying. If the nest is lost during incubation, the coots will almost always re-nest withing six days.

Coots also have all sorts of nesting strategies. Apart from their own nests, they will lay eggs in the nests of other coots. One study found that up to 40% of nests had eggs from more than one female and that 13% of all eggs were laid by females in nests that were not their own. However, that’s not to say that all those potential adopted chicks survive. Coots are one of only three known species of birds that can recognize their own chicks, and the future isn’t rosy for chicks identified as belonging to a different bird. Coots have also been known to lay their eggs in the nests of Franklin’s gulls, cinnamon teal and redhead ducks.

Earlier it was mentioned that coots will often build multiple nests before deciding which to use. They are also unusual in that they also build display platforms are used as roosting sites and are left to decompose after mating. Following hatching, chicks will often move to brood nests, which are newly constructed or are converted from old egg nests. They are simply larger egg nests.

Apart from being able to produce a lot of young, coots help their survival chances by being able to eat almost anything . . .

American Coot Takeoff



Coots are mainly vegetarians, eating aquatic plants like algae, duckweed, eelgrass, wild rice, sedges, hydrilla, wild celery, water lilies, cattails, etc. On land, they also will occasionally eat terrestrial plants and sometimes eat grains or leaves of oak, elm and cypress trees. However, coots aren’t strict vegetarians and will eat all manner of insects, as well as crustaceans, snails, fish, tadpoles and salamanders. In fact, chicks eat primarily insects and crustaceans. Coots have even been known to eat dead birds. And if they don’t feel like hunting for their own food, coots will steal their meal from other birds, an action known as “kleptoparasitism.”

Life Style

Coots are not strong flyers and don’t take part in epic migrations. They do typically move south, but there’s no rigid time table, and there’s often no specific destination in mind, other than ‘south.’ The fall migration occurs over a period of August through December. If open water can be found, many coots won’t bother with migration at all, instead overwintering where they are. Likewise, spring migration seems to be a leisurely affair, occurring from late February to mid-May. Again, coots don’t typically move farther than they have to, although there is some evidence of them getting as far as Greenland and Iceland.

On the water, the coot propels itself with repeated forward and backward pumps of the head. A strong swimmer and diver, the coot uses its lobed toes to manoeuver to forage for aquatic plants. Any semblance of grace disappears on land and in the air, however. It walks rather than waddling like a duck, but it’s an ungainly walk, and as it’s shuffling forward, the cocked tail is constantly flicking to expose a white underside. To even get airborne, the coot needs long running takeoffs. In the air, it’s as if the coot was afraid to get very high for fear of falling; it usually flies low over the water with the head, neck and legs outstretched in what is clearly an awkward position, or so it would seem.

But it’s all those idiosyncrasies that make the coot such an enjoyable bird to watch. We hope uyou’ll come to appreciate them as much as we do.