American Coot

Fulica americana
Range Map

The American Coot is a member of the rail family (Rallidae). This bird’s swims and behaves like a waterfowl and often congregates with ducks. Compared to most other rails, these birds are bold and outgoing and often quarrelsome. They will aggressively chase each other and even other species off their chosen territory.

Their feet have partial webbing that does not connect between the toes, as with true waterfowl. These lobes fold flat and provide them with the ability to walk on dry land without sinking into soft mud as easily as some other birds. These lobes even help propel the coots while they swim, flexing behind the foot during the forward stroke and standing to the side to catch water for the power stroke.

It is a common practice for unpaired females, or females without territories, to lay eggs in a neighbor’s nest. The nest owner uses a selective strategy (not fully understood) to eliminate the interloper’s offspring. The young chicks lose their bizarre orange-red head feathers after three weeks. Those who’ve studied this in nature believe the nest owners will weed out young chicks who age out of the redheaded phase too soon or at a different time than the rest of their nest-mates.

I grew up calling these birds Mud Hens, a name still in use in some quarters. I don’t always attempt image captures when I find them, and they range over most of North America, save for the tundras of the higher latitudes. Summer only breeding territory extends to the Northern Rockies in the northwest, and across the northern prairie provinces and states to the Mississippi Valley and the Great Lakes. They are resident year-round in much of the Western USA, Texas and Mexico. These birds are winter only visitors at several western locations such as the Mojave and Sonoran Desert regions of the southwest, most of southeastern USA, and much of Central America.

Modern science recognises two subspecies of American Coot:

  • F. a. americana lives all across North America, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean Islands.
  • F. a. columbiana lives in northern South America.

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