Skip to main content

Dig Imperial Beach

Visiting Our Estuary Now, An Imperial Beach Hidden Gem and Bird of the Week, the "American Coot"

Jan 23, 2019 11:19PM ● By Paul Spear

An Imperial Beach Hidden Gem and Bird of the Week, Bryan Brillhart Photography present the “Dig IB” Bird of the Week, the "American Coot "

the American Coot 

This week’s “Bird of the Week” is the American Coot (Fulica americana), also known as the “Mud hen”. Though commonly mistaken for ducks, American coots belong to a distinct order. Unlike the webbed feet of ducks, coots have broad, lobed scales on their lower legs and toes that fold back with each step in order to facilitate walking on dry land. American coots are still abundant in many areas, although populations have decreased in recent decades in some areas, especially in east.

Habitat is on ponds, lakes, marshes; and in winter, also in fields, park ponds, and salt bays

For breeding season they require fairly shallow fresh water with much marsh vegetation. At other seasons they may be in almost any aquatic habitat, including ponds or reservoirs with bare shorelines, open ground near lakes, on salt marshes or protected coastal bays. Migrants sometimes are seen out at sea some distance from land.

Coots are tough, adaptable waterbirds. Although they are related to the secretive rails, they swim in the open like ducks and walk about on shore, making themselves at home on golf courses and city park ponds. Usually in flocks, they are aggressive and noisy, making a wide variety of calls by day or night. They have strong legs and big feet with lobed toes, and coots fighting over territorial boundaries will rear up and attack each other with their feet. They are often seen walking on open ground near ponds. In taking flight they must patter across the water, flapping their wings furiously, before becoming airborne.

American coots display a wide variety of foraging methods, dabbling at the surface of water, upending in shallows, diving underwater (propelled by feet), and grazing on land. They also steal food from various ducks. Omnivorous, American coots eat mostly plant material, including stems, leaves, and seeds of pondweeds, sedges, grasses, and many others, but also much algae, insects, tadpoles, fish, worms, snails, crayfish, prawns, and the eggs of other birds.

After mating, females lay 6-11, sometimes 2-12, buff to grayish with brown spots eggs. Nests with more than 12 eggs probably indicate laying by more than 1 female using the nest. Incubation is by both sexes, in about 21-25 days. Young can swim well soon after hatching, following parents, and are fed by them. At night, young are brooded on a nest-like platform built by males. Young are probably able to fly at about 7-8 weeks after hatching. They raise 1 or 2 broods per year.

American coots are very aggressive in defense of nesting territory. In courtship, males may pursue females across water. Displays include swimming with head and neck lowered, wings arched, and tail raised to show off white patches. Nest sites are among tall marsh vegetation in shallow water. Nests (built by both sexes) are a floating platform of dead cattails, bulrushes, sedges, lined with finer materials, anchored to standing plants. Several similar platforms may be built, but only one or two are used for nesting.

Our Tijuana Estuary is now hosting a large flock of these birds, and it is easy to spot them swimming and feeding there. Look for them and the many other great bird species that frequent our great wildlife sanctuary there. Until next week, happy birding!


If you would like to see more of Bryan's Bird Photos you can click on this link:

Bryan Brillhart Photography or Bird of the Week                                          

Bryan Brillhart



Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Dig Imperial Beach's free newsletter to catch every headline