Meet an Island Native: the Coot

Rick Lewis &nbsp&nbsp The American coot, fulica americana, can be found in waterways all over the Bay Area. The bird has also been referred to as a “mud hen.”

Meet an Island Native: the Coot

The American coot, fulica americana, a once-abundant species in Alameda, can still be seen regularly in winter and on occasion breeding in a couple of the Island City’s marshy ponds — both fresh and brackish — during the summer. Its family is called gruiformes and includes gallinules, rails and surprisingly, the much larger cranes. See the resemblance?

The American coot, commonly called the “mud hen,” enjoys muddy marshes. Its walk and size remind people of the barnyard chicken. Like chickens, coots eat vegetation, bugs, snails and other nourishing bites both on land and in water. Small pieces of trash can look like food to coots, so people need to keep wetlands, marshes and grasslands free of trash.

American coots are about 15.6 inches long with a wing span of 24 inches. The adults are black with a small, white line along the rump. They have remarkable field marks that make them easy to identify. American coots and the now thought-to-be extinct ivory-billed woodpecker are the only birds in this country that have white beaks. Their dark red eyes add more color. A plump black bird with a white bill and red eyes is surely a coot. 

Don’t stop looking; they also have wonderfully interesting feet that are yellow-green in color and have lobed toes. The toes’ shape may help keep the birds from sinking into the mud while also providing a little more surface area for traction while swimming. The coot’s unique feet are a good example of the truly amazing ways animals evolve to more efficiently use their habitat.

Coot nests are usually mats of floating vegetation fashioned with a ramp to a lined hollow for 8 to 12 eggs. The 2-inch long and 1-inch wide eggs are buff to a pink buff color with brown, black or dark purple spots. Only a handful of the funny, fuzzy reddish chicks will survive. 

Years ago Alameda held “Coot Shoots” at the Golf Course to keep the hundreds and perhaps thousands of birds from messing the tidy turf. Happily for the coots, those events no longer occur. Lower numbers and laws about shooting within city limits stopped the activity. 

Coots are still part of the golf course winter scene. They can also be found at local ponds or along the shore and sometimes feeding on large lawns.

Although coots are eaten by people, they aren’t considered high-end table fare. In the south they were once skinned like rabbits (not plucked) and used to make gumbos. Seems country folks know how to create culinary favorites with what they find nearby.

While American coots appear to be weak fliers, they can fly long distances once they get their plump bodies into the air. Migratory routes take some of them to Latin America. They are thought to travel mostly at night. 

They can also be year-round residents of parts of California. Many more coots are in residence here in Alameda during the winter than in summer, which suggests they are a primarily migratory population. 

Check them out, especially their fun feet. 

 

For more information on Golden Gate Audubon Society or its Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Reserve conservation committee, go to www.goldengateaudubon.org.