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American Coot

November 15, 2023

The American Coot (Fulica americana) is an intriguing waterbird that, despite its resemblance to ducks, is more closely related to rails and cranes. In this educational blog, we will explore various aspects of the American Coot, focusing on its size and shape, color pattern, behavior, habitat, interesting facts, and ecosystem services. Discover the fascinating world of this unique bird and gain an appreciation for its distinctive adaptations and contributions to its environment.

Related: Learn How to ID Your Favorite Birds

How to ID a American Coot

One of the most notable features of the American Coot is its large, lobed feet, which are adapted for swimming and walking on soft ground [1]. Unlike ducks, coots do not have fully webbed feet; instead, they have broad, flat, and lobed toes that provide excellent propulsion in water and allow them to navigate muddy or marshy areas with ease. The coot has a distinctively small head and a straight, pointed bill that is white with a dark band near the tip [1]. A red or reddish-brown forehead shield, called a frontal shield, extends from the base of the bill up to the crown, giving the bird a unique appearance.

1. Size and Shape

The American Coot is a medium-sized waterbird, with a body length of 13-17 inches (33-43 cm), a wingspan of 23-28 inches (58-71 cm), and a weight of 1.4-2.6 pounds (635-1180 grams) [1]. The coot has a distinctive stocky, round body and a relatively short tail, which sets it apart from ducks and other waterfowl.

(1) Birds of the World. (2020). American Coot (Fulica americana), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

  • Length: 13-17 inches (33-43 cm)
  • Weight: 1.4-2.6 pounds (635-1180 grams)
  • Wingspan: 23-28 inches (58-71 cm)

2. Color Pattern

The American Coot is mostly slate-gray or blackish in color, with a slightly lighter-colored head and neck [1]. The dark plumage serves as a form of camouflage in aquatic environments, helping the bird blend in with its surroundings. When in flight, the American Coot reveals a striking underwing pattern. The coot's wings are mostly dark gray with a bold white patch along the trailing edge, which contrasts sharply with the dark plumage of the rest of the bird [1]. Both male and female American Coots have similar plumage, making it difficult to distinguish between the sexes based on appearance alone. Juvenile coots are generally duller in color, with a more brownish hue, and often lack the distinctive red forehead shield found in adults [1].

Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

3. Behavior

American Coots are omnivorous, feeding on a diverse diet that includes aquatic plants, seeds, algae, insects, and small fish [1]. They employ various foraging techniques, such as diving underwater to retrieve food, dabbling at the water's surface, or grazing on land. Coots may also steal food from other birds, a behavior known as kleptoparasitatism [1]. American Coots are known for their territorial and aggressive behaviors, especially during the breeding season. They will defend their nests and territories vigorously, using a series of displays, vocalizations, and physical confrontations to ward off potential threats or rivals [1]. Coots may even attack larger birds, like ducks or herons, if they perceive them as a threat.

Coots are social birds and are often found in flocks, particularly during migration and in winter [1]. They communicate using a wide range of vocalizations, including grunts, cackles, and whistles, which help them maintain contact with flock members and coordinate group activities.

4. Habitat

The American Coot is widely distributed across North America, Central America, and parts of the Caribbean, inhabiting a variety of wetland habitats [1]. Its range extends from southern Alaska and Canada, through the United States and Mexico, and as far south as Panama. American Coots are typically found in freshwater wetlands, such as ponds, marshes, and lakes, as well as in some brackish or saltwater environments [1]. They prefer habitats with a mix of open water and emergent vegetation, which provide both feeding and nesting opportunities. Coots can also be found in man-made habitats like reservoirs, sewage ponds, and flooded agricultural fields. American Coots are migratory birds, with populations in the northern parts of their range moving southward during winter to escape freezing conditions and find more abundant food resources [1]. In their wintering grounds, coots often form large, dense flocks that can number in the thousands.

Related: Black-capped Chickadees: ID and Overview

Photo by Brian Forsyth:

Video on the American Coot

"The often overlooked American Coot is an abundant water bird found across the entire country.  During the winter, the form large flocks in Florida and are a rowdy bunch with constant squabbles and entertainment.  Filmed entirely on location at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Viera Wetlands, and Orlando Wetlands Park. Episode #005, Nature Profiles. Nature Profiles, part of the Filming Florida project, is a series of short 3 minute films showcasing the natural history of Florida including the landscape, the wildlife, and the people that strive to understand and conserve it. A new short film will be released every other Tuesday over the next three years. Filming Florida is a multiyear project to document the natural landscape and biodiversity of Florida through filmmaking and photography." -

Facts about the American Coot

American Coots construct floating nests made of aquatic vegetation, which they anchor to emergent plants or submerged objects [1]. These nests are often built in close proximity to other coots, forming loose colonies. Coot chicks are precocial, meaning they are relatively well-developed and mobile upon hatching [1]. They are covered in downy feathers and are capable of swimming and diving within hours of hatching, although they still depend on their parents for protection and feeding. The American Coot population can experience dramatic fluctuations in response to changes in water levels and habitat availability [1]. Droughts and habitat loss can lead to significant declines in local populations, while periods of high water levels can result in rapid population growth.

Ecosystem Services:

  1. As an abundant and widespread species, the American Coot serves as an important food source for a variety of predators, including raptors, large fish, and mammals such as raccoons and foxes [1]. By providing a reliable food source, coots support the overall health and stability of their ecosystems.
  2. American Coots are sensitive to changes in their wetland habitats, and their presence or absence can serve as an indicator of wetland health and water quality [1]. Maintaining healthy populations of coots and other wetland birds can help guide conservation and management efforts aimed at protecting these critical ecosystems.
  3. Through their feeding habits, American Coots contribute to nutrient cycling in their aquatic habitats [1]. By consuming and digesting plant material, coots help break down and redistribute nutrients, promoting the overall health and productivity of their ecosystems.

The American Coot is a fascinating waterbird with a wide range of unique adaptations and behaviors. By exploring its size and shape, color pattern, behavior, habitat, interesting facts, and ecosystem services, we can gain a deeper understanding of this species and appreciate its role in maintaining healthy ecosystems. The American Coot is a testament to the beauty and complexity of the natural world, and its conservation is vital to preserving the integrity of our wetland habitats. By learning about and appreciating this unique bird, we can better understand the importance of protecting its habitats and the countless other species that call them home. So, the next time you come across an American Coot in the wild, take a moment to appreciate its distinctive characteristics and the essential role it plays in our natural world.

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