By Eden Gallanter
Have you enjoyed biking or strolling along the Bay Trail? Chances are you’ve seen a pudgy, black-hooded and dusky-colored water bird known as the American Coot. Coots are typically a little over a foot long with a two-foot wingspan, are dark-gray in color, and have a white bill and yellowish, lobed feet. They lay large clutches of 8-12 eggs, can both swim and dive, and make a variety of clucking noises, sometimes punctuated by a thin cry.
The coot is a common sight around shallow bodies of fresh and salt water, like ponds, lakes, marshes, and streams, especially those bordered by reeds, rushes, and grasses. Coots mostly like to eat water plants and algae, though they will also munch on grasses, grains, and tiny water animals like tadpoles and insect larvae. These social birds spend their days browsing for food in groups, and move their heads in a constant back and forth motion while swimming in hopes of catching something to eat. Coots are clumsy fliers, and have to run on the surface of the water in order to build up enough speed to become airborne.
Despite their jolly appearance, coots are fierce. These birds can be quite violent in defending their territory, and are surprisingly willing to kill their own offspring if they peep too loudly or too weak at feeding time. The breeding season in particular is a time of year that inspires all kinds of criminal behavior in this squat little bird. Females who already have happy nests of their own often sneak up to other coots’ nests to add a few eggs, to be nurtured at the expense of their unwitting neighbors. When coot eggs hatch, the chicks quickly grow into small, fluffy creatures with bright red and yellow feathers on their heads and shiny red bills. However, these festive-looking chicks grow into swaggering youths, who, as a result of overconfident behavior, frequently fall prey to a wide variety of ferocious predators. In fact, juvenile coots supply our national bird, the American Bald Eagle, with 80% of its meals.
Despite some seemingly ill-advised and dishonorable behavior, the American coot is as wonderfully successful in the San Francisco Bay Area as it is all across the country. They are able to live in suburban parks and sewage ponds as well as their more traditional habitats. Coots merely need bodies of still water that contain heavy stands of aquatic plants, and any manner of a wide range of food, from algae to snails, salamanders to oak tree leaves. In fact, coots are so common and so widespread that they serve a useful function in the study of environmental contamination. Because they live in wetlands, they can accumulate pollutants, so scientists can monitor these common birds to assess the larger environment. Coots may not be elegant, graceful, or tuneful birds, but they are enthusiastically populous and thriving all across our Bay Area watersheds.