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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

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.

Optics Planet birding kit
Big Day 2014

Keys to identification Help

Ducklike
Ducklike
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    The American Coot is a plump, chickenlike bird with a rounded head and a sloping bill. Their tiny tail, short wings, and large feet are visible on the rare occasions they take flight.

  • Color Pattern

    Coots are dark-gray to black birds with a bright-white bill and forehead. The legs are yellow-green. At close range you may see a small patch of red on the forehead.

  • Behavior

    You’ll find coots eating aquatic plants on almost any body of water. When swimming they look like small ducks (and often dive), but on land they look more chickenlike, walking rather than waddling. An awkward and often clumsy flier, the American Coot requires long running takeoffs to get airborne.

  • Habitat

    Look for American Coots at ponds in city parks, in marshes, reservoirs, along the edges of lakes, and in roadside ditches, sewage treatment ponds, and saltwater inlets or saltmarshes.

Range Map Help

American Coot Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    American Coot

    Adult
    • Thick greenish legs and very large feet
    • Black head and neck
    • Pointed white bill
    • © Cameron Rognan, Sunset Park, St. George, Utah, December 2007
  • Adults

    American Coot

    Adults
    • Dark gray with black head and white bill
    • Often found in large flocks in the winter
    • © Laura Erickson, Ithaca, New York, February 2009
  • Adult

    American Coot

    Adult
    • Round body and round head
    • Dark gray overall with black head
    • Bright white, pointed bill (not rounded like a duck's)
    • Red eye, greenish legs
    • © Billtacular, New Jersey, February 2009
  • Adult

    American Coot

    Adult
    • Pointed white bill
    • Dark reddish forehead shield
    • Large, greenish, lobed feet
    • © genericzombie, Louisville, Kentucky, January 2009
  • Adult

    American Coot

    Adult
    • Very large, lobed feet
    • Coots dive underwater to feed on aquatic vegetation
    • © Ron McCluskey, Douglas County, Washington, February 2009
  • Adult and juvenile

    American Coot

    Adult and juvenile
    • Orange down on neck of juvenile turns pale gray-white with age
    • Bare head of juvenile develops pale feathering
    • Adults often seen feeding juveniles in late spring and summer
    • © Raymond Lee, Elk Island NP, Alberta, Canada, July 2010
  • Juvenile

    American Coot

    Juvenile
    • Orange-yellow collar of down feathers
    • Fluffy black down feathers cover body
    • Bare skin on head with stubby red and orange bill
    • © Nick Chill, San Carlos, San Diego, California, May 2010

Similar Species

  • Adult

    Common Gallinule

    Adult
    • Similar in shape and behavior to American Coot, but readily distinguishable
    • Red bill and forehead shield, yellow bill tip
    • White undertail
    • White stripe on flanks
    • © Jeff H, Lake Underhill, Orlando, Florida, January 2011
  • Adult

    Common Gallinule

    Adult
    • Long, clawed toes with no lobes
    • Red bill and forehead shield with yellow bill tip
    • White stripe on flanks
    • © avicentric, Loxahatchee NWR,, Florida, December 2009
  • Immature

    Common Gallinule

    Immature
    • Bold, white undertail
    • Olive-brown back and wings
    • No lobes on toes
    • © cminer52, Waupun, Wisconsin, October 2010
  • Adult

    Purple Gallinule

    Adult
    • Similar in shape but easily distinguishable from American Coot
    • Bright violet underparts, glossy green back and wings
    • Red bill with yellow tip and pale blue facial shield
    • Long, yellow legs with large, non-lobed feet.
    • © Ken Schneider, Palm County, Florida, February 2009
  • Adult

    Pied-billed Grebe

    Adult
    • Not very similar to American Coot
    • Smaller and brown throughout
    • Small head and slender neck
    • Gray-yellow bill with no facial shield
    • © Lois Manowitz, Stockham, Tucson, Arizona, February 2010

Similar Species

The Common Gallinule has a horizontal white flank-stripe and a red bill and forehead. The small grebes (Pied-billed Grebe, Eared Grebe, Horned Grebe) have a similar ducklike shape, but their bills are more slender and their bodies are smaller; they tend to sit lower in the water. The Purple Gallinule of the southeastern U.S. is the same shape as a coot, but is gaudily colored purple and green with a red bill. It more often walks than swims.

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!