American Coots (Fulica americana) belong to the Rail family (Rallidae), along with rails (naturally) and gallinules. Going one taxonomic step above family, they belong to the order Gruiformes, which also includes the crane family. Ducks, geese and swans, however, are members of the order Anseriformes, quite a different branch of the avian family tree.
So, the next time someone inquires about an all-black "duck" with a white bill and funny-looking feet, feel free to kindly share with them that the coot is not a duck at all, but actually more closely related to Sandhill Cranes!
|Adult American Coot with two juveniles|
Because American Coots are terribly common birds on almost every body of water across nearly the entire North American continent, I pay them very little mind. They're always a January 1st bird for me; meaning, when I begin counting species for the year, it's pretty much guaranteed that I'll see a few coots on day one. From lake edges and marshes to city parks and sewage ponds, coots are perfectly at home.
Last summer, Eric and I spent a few weeks in Switzerland and on day one, lo and behold, what did we happen to spot floating on Zürisee (Lake Zurich) but... coots. How ordinary! Of course, in Europe the species is the Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra), which is slightly different from ours... but not much. (The Eurasian Coot also has a large range, found across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, reaching as far as the Pacific Coast of China and Japan, and even Australia.)
|Eurasian Coot, Lake Zurich, Switzerland|
And that's not all. Nine more species of Fulica coots populate the globe, with six in South America alone. (Those are the Red-fronted Coot, Red-Gartered Coot, White-winged Coot, Giant Coot, Andean Coot and Horned Coot, if you wanted to know). The Red-knobbed Coot is found in southern Africa, and the Caribbean Coot and Hawaiian Coot (with self-explanatory ranges) pretty much fill in the gaps, assuring a coot for every continent and clime, barring frigid Antarctica and the Arctic and subarctic regions of the north.
So, if a baby duck is called a "duckling" and a baby goose is a "gosling," what are baby coots called? Seeing as they are so far removed from ducks and their kin, can we call them "cootlings"? Cootlets? Cooties? Just plain chicks? Or perhaps hatchling or juvenile, as age would allow, is more appropriate?
In any case, a few days ago we happened upon a pair of newly-hatched coots on one of the ponds at CSU Stanislaus. I've seen a few batches of coot young'uns this year and in years past, but never babies so freshly hatched! Young coots can swim just a few hours after hatching, and they are... unique-looking, to say the least!
Perhaps its a face only a mother could love...
But just look that those wee little wings! Though they swim well right out of the gate (or right out of the shell?) it will be nearly two months before these little guys are strong enough to take to the skies in flight.
American Coots feed on aquatic vegetation, and their favored habitats almost always include a decent amount of emergent vegetation surrounded by adequately deep water. (Think reeds and other such water plants that emerge - hence the name - from a foot or two of water.) Nests of woven plant material are built on floating platforms, hidden in and anchored to emergent plants (tules, cattails, reeds, grasses, etc.). Females typically lay clutches of eight to twelve eggs, and are capable of raising two broods per summer. Personally, I've never seen that many young coots in one brood; but they are extremely prolific birds, so it must work for them! Coot parents pick bits of aquatic vegetation and feed it to their young until they learn to forage on their own.
As I was taking these photos, the mother (I assume it was the mother, but I suppose only they know for certain; male and female coots look the same and both parents participate in nest building, incubation and brooding) was plucking algae from the stone pillars of a bridge and feeding it to her little baby... cootlings. A sweet moment from one of our most common and overlooked birds!