American Coots are about 38 cm long and, during the winter, will weigh up to almost 900 g. They have a wingspan of 58 to 71 cm. Their feathers are dark grey, with a white patch under the tail. The bill is also white, with a red swelling along the upper edge. The males and females look alike. The lobed toes make the coot a powerful swimmer, especially in open water. Though able to fly, the coot has short rounded wings which make it difficult to take off. Once in the air, the coot can fly as well as any other bird.
American Coots are migratory birds native to the Nearctic region. During the summer, these birds are found centered around the freshwater lakes and ponds of the northern United States and southern Canada. During the winter they head to the southern portion of the United States from California to Florida. They live mostly within the boundaries of the contiguous United States, but some individuals have been found as far away as Alaska and South America.
Whether wintering in the south or spending the summer in the north, American Coots live along the edge of the water. They are freshwater birds and live in the shallow areas of freshwater lakes, ponds or marshes. They have also been found living in the man-made ponds of parks or golf courses.
When it becomes time for the coot to mate (usually around May and June), the process begins with great show. Both sexes start out displaying themselves in front of the other. They call to one another, while splashing about. The mating process begins on the water and ends on the land. The female coot assumes a submissive posture (crouched with head down) as an invitation to the male for sex. She maintains this position while mating.
Males and females work together to build a nest that is about 35 cm across. These nests are located at the edge of the reed cover of a pond. All nests have a ramp that leads into the water so the young have easier access when coming and going from the nest. Females lay 8 to 10 eggs at a time. The eggs are a pink color with brown spots.
Both the male and female incubate the eggs, which means the parents take turns keeping the eggs warm until they hatch. The eggs hatch about 23 days after the female lays them. The young look like the adults, except they are lighter in color. Both parents share the job of feeding and teaching their young, dividing the number of chicks between them. After one month, the young can dive underwater for their own food. They can fly 5 to 6 weeks after hatching and are fully independent after about 2 months.
The average lifespan is 9 years.
American Coots are social birds that live in groups called flocks. They are the only members of the rail family to live in groups. They are most active during the day.
Since American Coots are more adapted to life in the water than other birds, they cannot take off with a "dead start". Instead, coots take a running start across the water to become airborne. They are migratory, and migrate as a flock. Their migration, though, is based on the weather and therefore highly irregular.
American Coots can make a wide variety of noises, from grunting to clucking, as a means of communication, between each other and to threatening predators. There are two times a coot will splash: during mating season to attract attention and to discourage predators. American Coots also use their good sense of vision to communicate.
American coots are omnivorous. They will eat small aquatic animals (fish or tadpoles), insects, and vegetation found in the pond. American coots have the ability to dive for their food, much like ducks. When diving, they seek the plants that grow on the bottom of the pond. After bringing plants up to the surface, American coots will go through them looking for the edible bits. Even though they are capable of searching out their own food, they have been known to steal food from other birds.
American coots have a certain sound to warn other birds of predators. They will also splash around in the water to discourage predators. They are preyed upon by osprey and bald eagles as adults. Eggs and nestlings are preyed upon by raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes, snapping turtles, and many other small predators.
American Coots influence populations of aquatic invertebrates and plants and serve as a prey base for predators in their habitats.
The American Coot is not used as a human food source, and due to the awkwardness of their take-off and early flight, they are not used as game birds.
American Coots are an abundant and widespread species. They are not endangered, nor are they threatened, but they are protected by the Migratory Bird Act. The Hawaiian Coot, a relative of the American Coot, has been on the endangered species list since 1970.
American Coots are the only member of the rail family that has truly adapted to live on the water.
Allison Bridgman (author), University of California, Irvine, Rudi Berkelhamer (editor), University of California, Irvine.
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