Tuesday, April 7, 2009

At the pond... American Coot

American CootAmerican Coot, Tualatin River NWR, Sherwood, Oregon on 4 August 2007 by Greg Gillson.


At first blush the American Coot appears to be a duck. However, it has a strange white, almost chicken-like bill. One look at the green legs and lobed toes, though, and one quickly realizes it is not a duck!

Rather than a duck-like foot with webbing between the front three toes, each of the coot's long toes have individual web-like flaps to aid in swimming! In this way the feet are lobed similar to those of grebes. However, coots are not closely related to ducks or grebes. Instead, they are more closely related to rails--those secretive marsh dwellers. Coots are very closely related to birds called moorhens or gallinules. Moorhens, though, lack lobes on their very long toes.

There are 11 species of coots in the world, all very similar in appearance. The American Coot has a dark gray body with darker head and neck. The white bill has a dark reddish ring near the tip, and a dark red spot on the forehead frontal shield. The undertail coverts are blackish with white outer patches.

These birds breed widely in marshy wetlands from Alaska to southeastern Canada and southward through Mexico and the West Indies, locally in Central American and Columbia. They build mound nests in the water of cattails and rushes. In winter they use a wider variety of lakes and ponds, withdrawing from the northern portion of their range as these water sources freeze over. During the winter the American Coot becomes even more abundant in the Pacific Northwest, wherever open water remains, especially in coastal estuaries and valleys west of the Cascades and Sierra-Nevada mountains.

To view the feet of coots, visit grassy city parks with a pond in winter. Here American Coots and American Wigeon often graze together on the lawns and become accustomed to close approach by people.

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