American Coot

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Common Name: American Coot Scientific Name: Fulica americana

Size: 13-17 inches (34-43 cm); Wingspan: 23-28 inches (58-71 cm)

Habitat: The Americas; the breeding habitat extends from marshes in southern Quebec to the Pacific coast of North America and as far south as northern South America. Birds from temperate North America east of the Rocky Mountains migrate to the southern United States and southern British Columbia. It is often a year-round resident where water remains open in winter. The number of birds that stay year-round, near the northern limit of the species' range, appears to be increasing.

Autumn migration occurs from August to December, with males and non-breeders moving south before the females and juveniles. Spring migration to breeding ranges occurs from late February to mid-May, with males and older birds moving North first. There has been evidence of birds travelling as far north as Greenland and Iceland.

American Coots are found near water reed-ringed lakes and ponds, open marshes, and sluggish rivers. They prefer freshwater environments but may temporarily live in saltwater environments during the winter months.

Status: Least Concern. Global Population: 6,000,000 adult individuals. This species has undergone a small or statistically insignificant decrease over the last 40 years in North America. They are common and widespread, and are sometimes even considered a pest. They are rarely the targets of hunters since their meat is not considered to be as good as that of ducks; although some are shot for sport, particularly in the southeastern United States. Because they are found in wetlands, scientists use them to monitor toxin levels and pollution problems in these environments.

Diet: Omnivorous diet consisting of algae and other aquatic vegetation. During breeding season, coots are more likely to eat aquatic insects and mollusks—which constitute the majority of a chick's diet. They usually dive for food but can also forage and scavenge on land.

Nesting: Females and males have similar appearances, but they can be distinguished during aggressive displays by the larger ruff (head plumage) on the male. Females are also smaller in size than males. Adults have a short, thick, white bill and white frontal shield, which usually has a reddish-brown spot near the top of the bill between the eyes. The bill has a small black stripe towards its end. It has yellow/grayish legs and feet.

The Coot mating season occurs during May and June. Coot mate pairings are monogamous throughout their life, given they have a suitable territory. The American Coot typically has long courtship periods. This courtship period is characterized by billing, bowing, and nibbling. Males generally initiate billing, which is the touching of bills between individuals. As the pair bond becomes more evident, both males and females will initiate billing only with each other.

After a pair bond is cemented, the mating pair looks for a territory to build a nest in. A pair bond becomes permanent when a nesting territory is secured. Copulation behavior among Coot pairs always falls under the same general pattern. First the male chases the female. The female then, moves to the display platform, and squats with her head under the water. The male then mounts the female, using his claws and wings to balance on the females’ back while the she brings her head above the water and copulation occurs in a few seconds.

Coots generally build floating nests and are well-concealed locations in tall reeds. The female lays 8–12 eggs per clutch. Egg and brood nests are actually elaborate rafts, and must be constantly added to in order to stay afloat. Females typically do the most work while building.

Incubation start time in the American Coot is variable, and can begin anywhere from the deposition of the first egg to after the clutch is fully deposited. Male and female Coots share incubation responsibility, but males do most of the work during the 21-day incubation period.

Regardless of clutch size, eight is the typical maximum size of a brood. Egg desertion is a frequent occurrence among Coots because females will often deposit more than eight eggs. Brood size limits incubation time, and when a certain number of chicks have hatched the remaining eggs are abandoned. The mechanism for egg abandonment has not yet been discovered. Food resource constraints may limit the number of eggs parents let hatch, or the remaining eggs may not provide enough visual or tactile stimulation to elicit incubation behavior. In scientific studies, coots have been forced to hatch more eggs than are normally laid. These additional offspring, however, suffer higher mortality rates due to inadequacy in brooding or feeding ability.

Cool Facts: Coots are not ducks. Unlike the webbed feet of ducks, coots have broad, lobed scales on their lower legs and toes that fold back with each step in order to facilitate walking on dry land.

Groups of coots are called covers or rafts. The oldest known coot lived to be 22 years old.

Studies have found that mothers will preferentially feed offspring with the brightest plume feathers, a characteristic known as chick ornaments. American Coots are also susceptible to conspecific brood parasitism and have evolved mechanisms to identify which offspring are theirs and which are from parasitic females.

On the Louisiana coast, the Cajun word for coot is pouldeau, from French for "coot", poule d'eau – literally "water hen". Coot can be used for cooking; it is somewhat popular in Cajun cuisine, for instance as an ingredient for gumbos cooked at home by duck hunters.

Found in Songbird Remix Waterfowl Volume 4: Geese Loons, Grebe & Coots

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