Thursday, April 24, 2008

Bigfoot. Really.

The first coot I ever saw was at Reifel Island; since then, every time I've been there, I've been watching for them. I count myself fortunate to see even one. Tuesday afternoon, we found dozens.

Coot, waiting for us beside the parking lot.

"Crazy as a coot," they say. And often justify the saying by telling of its voice, squeaks or metallic scraping noises, clicks, sometimes a bottle cork sound, sometimes a cough, always unmusical. (sound file of a metallic call here). Others reference its swimming style; not gliding, but bouncing along, bobbing its head with the effort. Or watch its awkward attempts at take-off. Because its wings are short, it needs to get up a good speed to lift off, so it runs over the surface of the water, splashing and squawking for up to 100 feet.

Photo from Wikipedia

I think it's simpler than that; just look at the bird!

An odd, misshapen body. Too short, as if it were half a bird, lopped off before the tail. A black neck-warmer pulled up like a hood over the eyes. Red eyes. Green legs with an orange garter, feet in a dead-meat greyish blue. The stark white bill is too long for the face, so it rises to the forehead, pinned on with a coloured button at the top.

The "button", or frontal shield, on this coot is reddish-brown; the next one has a yellow border on its shield.

And the feet:

Huge, floppy feet, three sizes too big for the little bird. How it manages to walk without tripping over its own toes is a mystery.

Watch it dive:

Big feet out at right angles; in the water, they make good paddles.

Underwater now, but the feet still at the surface. It makes quite a "hole" in the water as it goes down.

The weirdest thing about the coot's dive is the way it surfaces. Sometimes it pops up like any normal diving duck, but often it comes up the way it went down; head down, tail up. It looks like a video in reverse.


Coot and Greater Scaup.


  1. Our local coot species in Australia and New Zealand is a little different - most noticeably, the shield on the face is white, the same colour as the beak (hence the phrase 'bald as a coot').

    The really freaky thing about our local coots, that may or may not apply to the American coots, is the appearance of the chicks. Bright yellow body, with a messy red head. At the risk of sounding somewhat macabre, they put me in mind of nothing so much as a bedraggled baby chicken that has been picked up by its legs and had its head smacked against a brick wall.

    Not that I've ever seen such a thing, of course. But if I had, I suspect it would look very much like a coot chick.

  2. Christopher,

    I have never seen a baby coot; We'll have to go back to Reifel soon to look for them.

    I looked up images of American coots; yes, the chicks are as you describe. There's a good photo here.

  3. We saw lots of coots in Santa Cruz over the winter. Your description is really perfect! I have never seen a baby coot, and that photograph you linked to is absolutely adorable.

  4. Robin,

    I'll try to get some coot chick photos when they hatch. Spring down at Reifel is great fun!


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