by Alex Crowley (age 12)
Chicken? Duck? Nope! It’s the American Coot, one of the coolest birds you can see here in Northwest Montana! The American Coot, or Fulica americana, can be found along the banks of our slow rivers and on the edges of our lakes and ponds. You may even see one on a golf course. When you first see the American Coot with its beautiful plump black body and rounded head with white bill you may think you are looking at a duck but look again. Smaller than a crow but bigger than a robin they are 15.5-16.9 inches. Their wingspan is 23.0-25.0 inches. If you are lucky enough to get close you will see they have a small patch of red on their forehead, amazing red eyes, and very unique feet.
American Coots are omnivores, they eat seeds of pondweeds, grasses, algae, insects, tadpoles, fish, worms, snails, prawns, and eggs of other birds. The big variety in their diet means they can live successfully in a lot of places, which makes them common across the state of Montana. We can see American Coots all year long in the Flathead Valley.
A group of American Coots is called a raft. Parents have 8-12 eggs that can look a buff pinkish or a buff gray with dark brown speckles. Coot chicks don’t look like their parents! They are bright and colorful unlike their parents, with yellow and orange downy feathers. Their bare heads are red and black, and their bills are red and orange. Chick’s fancy coloring helps parents determine the age of their chicks. Younger birds are brighter colored. Baby coots can leave the nest and follow their parents into the water right after hatching, which is important because coot parents are tough. Sometimes they lay more eggs than they can feed, so not all the chicks survive. Also, sometimes American Coot parents drop off their eggs in their neighbor’s nest. It can be a hard start for an American Coot chick.
American Coots have natural enemies both on the land and in the air. Coming from the sky are Great Horned Owls, Bald Eagles, Osprey, and Northern Harriers. On land American Coots have to be watchful for coyotes, skunks, racoons, foxes and other small predators.
My favorite part about the American Coot is its lobed toes, which make it easy for them to get around both on land and in the water. Like a duck’s webbed foot, the coot’s toes help push it through the water. These feet are also good for walking on top of vegetation in the marshes and on land. And they look like T. Rex feet with yellow-green scales and bluish-grey shadows with long talons! One of the most important uses for their feet are getting airborne. To take off they run across the surface of the water like a Basilisk lizard and furiously flap their wings.
American Coots are not threatened by people, probably because they are considered inedible. Some scientists use coots to monitor the environment since many toxins like agricultural runoff end up in their marshy diet
Here’s a fun fact, the oldest American Coot lived to be 22 years and 4 months old!
The first time I saw an American Coot in real life was on the Flathead Audubon trip to the Creston National Hatchery. It was an incredible day. I got to stand in the duck blind and observe this amazing bird with the dinosaur feet and dark red eyes. I hope you get a chance to see one too!
Sources available from Darcy Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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