Saturday, April 26, 2008

The American Coot Is A Hoot

Laughable and lovable, it is loud, noisy and fun-loving pond dweller. If you watch it long enough you will die laughing at its antics.

It is an odd-ball. It walks like a chicken, dives like a duck, croaks like a frog and swims like a fish. Wherever there's a pond to its liking, this amusing chicken-like bird with its impish fellows gather like a gang of hootin' football spectators.

This sooty black rail (many people think it is a duck) breeds from Alaska to South America. Wherever it breeds, the inland ponds and lakes are home. It is in our area now, the American coot.

Garbed almost entirely in sombre black, its short and stubby tail is tipped in white. A thick, gleaming white beak sets off its black face. Its eyes glitter and twinkle like scarlet jewels on black velvet. Its feet are pale greenish-olive with toes lobed along the edges.

After a tempestuous courtship, the jovial male coot turns the home building duties over to his wife. With her beak, she pounds together dead stalks of reeds and rushes to build a platform. She curves the stalks over with her bill and "hammers" them to live rushes floating in the water. With all the knocking and hammering going on during nesting season, you would think the prime interest rate has just been reduced again, for construction is booming in the marsh where coots abound.

When the nest is finished and anchored to floating vegetation, it drifts in the water like a pontoon boat. Nests are woven together in somewhat of a wicker basket fashion. Eggs number from six to at times more than a dozen. They are cream-colored and are distinguishable by the small 'pepper-spot' markings evenly sprinkled over them. Incubation is about 21 days and is shared by both parents. Being precocial, as soon as their down is dry, the young leave the nest and swim and dive almost as well as their parents. The father acts as baby-sitter during this time.

It's fun to watch a coot any time. But they are especially hilarious to observe during mating season. Find a choice seat in the reads along side a pond filled with the laughable creatures. (Bring along popcorn to eat for what you see will be equivalent to a three-ring circus.) Scuffling, calling skittering, courting, charging, these spastic, black-colored clowns turn the [pond into a jumble of confusion. Sometimes they fight savagely . . . the eternal love triangle being involved. Feathers fly, and raspy, screechy, honking voices fill the air. In their battles they lock claws as well as bills.

Whenever swimming or walking the coot nods its head in step with its foot movements, like a dove. Its white bill, in contrast to its black head, fairly gleams in the sunlight, an excellent field mark.

The coot is another bird that appears to be adapting to the ways of civilization. It is a wild bird with wild ways, and it can be found in the remotest swamp ponds. But it is also found along heavily traveled freeways where it nonchalantly lets the noise and the constant movement of traffic roll off its back like water off a duck's.

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