Bird of the day: American coot (Fulica americana)

American coot swimming near boardwalk
American coot. Madison, Wis., Nov. 7, 2017.

I don’t often get a chance to see coots up close. At the lake, they tend to congregate out in the water and swim away if I walk toward them. And they are fast swimmers—at least it seems to me that for every step I take toward them, they move three steps farther away.

So usually, I get pictures like this:

three american coots swimming in lake
American coots. Madison, Wis., Nov. 11, 2017.

For whatever reason, the coot I saw on a dock on November 7 was not concerned about me. It was windy that day, and maybe it knew that humans have a thing against diving into choppy water just to chase a coot down. So I managed to get a lot of pictures. Unfortunately, I should have been paying attention to my aperture settings, because every single photo I took of it turned out slightly blurry. Automatic focus wasn’t much help. I’m not sure if that’s because automatic focus doesn’t know how to focus on black things, or if the bobbing of the dock on the waves contributed to the blur. (My duck pictures turned out fine, though.)

American coot standing on boardwalk
American coot. Madison, Wis., Nov. 7, 2017.
American coot sitting on boardwalk
American coot. Madison, Wis., Nov. 7, 2017.

Coots are simultaneously weird-looking and cute. It was fun to watch this one stand, sit, and swim from a closer vantage point than I usually get. Though my binoculars, I got a really good look at its non-webbed feet. They reminded my of a chicken’s, but shinier.

Coots are great swimmers, but they’re not ducks. They are in the same family (Rallidae) as moorhens, which I wrote about this summer after seeing common moorhens in Madagascar.

common moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) hiding behind reeds common moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) walking on land

It’s not surprising that these two genuses are relatively close on the evolutionary tree. They both have that chicken-esque shape to their bodies and legs, and a beak with a shield that rises between their eyes. Also, their babies look quite similar. (Here are some American coot chicks and a common moorhen chick.)

As far as I’ve been able to determine, the various moorhen species are spread across the Eastern Hemisphere from Europe to Samoa. The Americas had at least one moorhen species back in the late Pliocene (about 2.58 million years ago), but don’t anymore.

Most coot species are from North or South America, though there is one in Hawaii and also the Eurasian coot. Paleontological and historical records show evidence of extinct coot species in New Zealand and the Mascarene Islands.

Like water birds? Browse more posts about waterfowl, shorebirds, and wading birds.

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