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American Coot

Fulica americana ORDER: GRUIFORMES FAMILY: RALLIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The waterborne American Coot is one good reminder that not everything that floats is a duck. A close look at a coot—that small head, those scrawny legs—reveals a different kind of bird entirely. Their dark bodies and white faces are common sights in nearly any open water across the continent, and they often mix with ducks. But they’re closer relatives of the gangly Sandhill Crane and the nearly invisible rails than of Mallards or teal.

Bird Festivals
Yard Map Birds Eye View

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
15.5–16.9 in
39.4–42.9 cm
Wingspan
23–25 in
58.4–63.5 cm
Weight
21.2–24.7 oz
600–700 g
Relative Size
About two-thirds the size of a Mallard.
Other Names
  • Foulque d'Amérique (French)
  • Gallareta americana (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Although it swims like a duck, the American Coot does not have webbed feet like a duck. Instead, each one of the coot’s long toes has broad lobes of skin that help it kick through the water. The broad lobes fold back each time the bird lifts its foot, so it doesn’t impede walking on dry land, though it supports the bird’s weight on mucky ground.
  • American Coots in the winter can be found in rafts of mixed waterfowl and in groups numbering up to several thousand individuals.
  • The ecological impact of common animals, like this ubiquitous waterbird, can be impressive when you add it all up. One estimate from Back Bay, Virginia, suggested that the local coot population ate 216 tons (in dry weight) of vegetation per winter.
  • The oldest known American Coot lived to be at least 22 years 4 months old.

Habitat


Lake/Pond

The American Coot inhabits a wide variety of freshwater wetlands from prairie potholes to swamps and marshes to suburban park and sewage ponds to the edges of large lakes. Two features generally characterize all bodies of water where coots breed: (1) heavy stands of emergent aquatic vegetation along at least some portion of the shoreline and (2) at least some depth of standing water within those stands of vegetation. Seasonal wetlands used during years of high water, while drought years cause breeding to be limited to permanent wetlands.

Food


Plants

Eats mainly aquatic plants including algae, duckweed, eelgrass, wild rice, sedges, hydrilla, wild celery, waterlilies, cattails, water milfoil; when on land they also pick at terrestrial plants and sometimes eat grains or leaves of oak, elm, and cypress trees. They’re not exclusively vegetarian. You may also see them eating insects (beetles, dragonflies, and others), crustaceans, snails, and small vertebrates such as tadpoles and salamanders.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
8–12 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
1.7–2.2 in
4.3–5.5 cm
Egg Width
0.8–1.5 in
2–3.7 cm
Incubation Period
23–25 days
Egg Description
Buff, pinkish buff or buff-gray speckled with dark brown, purplish brown, or black.
Condition at Hatching
Covered in down, alert, ready to leave the nest within 6 hours of hatching.
Nest Description

The nest material is woven into a shallow basket with a hollowed interior lined with finer smooth material to hold the eggs. The entire nest is generally a floating structure anchored to upright stalks. Average diameter is 12 inches, with a 12 to 15-inch ramp and an egg cup of about 1 inch in depth and 6 inches in diameter.

Nest Placement

Floating

Nests are almost always built over water on floating platforms and almost always associated with dense stands of living or dead vegetation such as reeds, cattails, bulrushes, sedges, and grasses. Occasionally, the nest may be built on the edge of a stand of vegetation, where it is clearly visible.

Behavior


Surface Dive

A slow and meticulous forager, the American Coot plucks at plants while walking, swimming, dabbling with its head just underwater, or in full dives. In flight coots are clumsy and labored (though less so than Common Moorhens). To get airborne, coots typically have to beat their wings while running across the water for many yards. Coots sometimes gather in winter flocks of several thousand, sometimes mixing with other waterfowl. They sometimes steal food from others including ducks. Coots sometimes lay their eggs in the nests of other coots as well as Franklin’s Gulls, Cinnamon Teal, and Redheads.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Common and widespread. Coot aren’t hunted nearly as much as ducks since many hunters consider them inedible. Some hunters shoot them for sport, particularly in Louisiana, California, Florida, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. In 1999 the annual harvest of coots in the U.S. was about 720,000. Because they live in wetlands, coots can accumulate toxins from pollution sources including agricultural runoff, industrial waste, and nuclear facilities. Because coots are so common and widespread, scientists sometimes monitor them as a way of monitoring these problems in the environment at large.

Credits

  • Brisbin, I. L., Jr., H. D. Pratt, and T. B. Mobray. 2002. American Coot (Fulica americana). In The Birds of North America, No. 697a (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America Online, Ithaca, New York.
  • Dunne, P. 2006. Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion. Houghton Mifflin, New York.
  • Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder’s Handbook. Simon & Schuster, New York.
  • Sibley, D. A. 2003. The Sibley Field Guide to the Birds of Western North America. Knopf, New York.
  • USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2011. Longevity records of North American Birds.

Range Map Help

American Coot Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident or medium-distance migrant. Populations in the northern half of North America migrate to the southern U.S. or Central America. Populations in the West and Florida are year-round residents.

Find This Bird

You can find American Coots by scanning lakes and ponds for a small, all-black bird with a bright white bill. They may be at the edges, among vegetation, or out in open water; you may even see them walking around (not waddling) on land on their fairly long, yellow-green legs. In the winter, they can be found in massive flocks of coots and other waterfowl, sometimes numbering in the thousands of individuals.

Get Involved

Help us find out how American Coot populations are doing in mid-winter by participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count

Look for American Coot nests and contribute valuable data about them through NestWatch

Report your American Coot sightings to eBird

Are you watching American Coot in a city? Celebrate Urban Birds!