Not a Duck

Not a duck Hdr 512 W watsoncoots

What are you seeing when you watch those duck-like birds from the pier?

Many of you have probably heard the saying that starts, “If it looks like duck, quacks like a duck…..”. So it would seem logical to assume that the birds in the water you see from the pier that have bills and look like they swim like ducks would be ducks. However, these birds are like icebergs, the main part of the story is underwater where we can’t see it. There are ducks in Black Bayou Lake, but most of what you are seeing from the pier are American coots and pied-billed grebes. Neither one of these is a duck, and if you could see their feet and legs it would be obvious. 

American coots winter down here and some of them also chose to spend the summer. They don’t have webbed feet like ducks, instead they look more like yellowish/green chicken feet with fat toes. Coots belong to a family of birds called rails (RALLIDAE) and the order (GRUIFORMES) that includes cranes. They can cluster in large groups and can consume literally tons of vegetation. Coots even have a taste for water hyacinth; for any human user of the lake that is good news. They are not great flyers and so have to run across the water in order to take flight which can be a spectacle in itself. Sometimes coots seem to stalk each other, one coot will have his head down near the water and go swimming towards another one, you can bet that there will be some noise and running to watch after that.

Not a Duck Grebe and coot 350 W

Pied-billed grebes are year round residents here although may be harder to watch since as diving birds, it’s more likely you will see one and then spend some time trying to figure out where it is going to pop up. Grebes are part of the order PODICIPEDIFORMES. Like the coots they do not have webbed feet, instead they have lobed toes and their legs are located toward the rear of their body. This structure and their ability to control their buoyancy make them incredible divers and swimmers. Although graceful in the water, they are not great at flying or walking so you are only likely to see them in the water. They dive after insects, fish, and crustaceans which they can grab with their thick bills.

Coots and grebes are another reminder that like many things at the refuge, there is more to the story than just the surface you see.