It’s duck hunting season out on the Detroit River right now. Along with all those mallards, black ducks, gadwalls, canvasbacks, and buffleheads out there, coots are also on the list of fair game. Huge rafts of those round black birds can be seen floating across the autumn riverscape (see below). They bob, dive, fly, and cavort within easy range of the well concealed waterfowlers. Such behavior might seem foolhardy- even crazy “as a coot” type behavior- but the fact is most hunters don’t bother taking them. They are just too easy to shoot and they aren’t especially desirable as a game bird. A few locals will take coot when the opportunity presents itself. In fact, according to a duck-hunting friend of mine they are good eating birds and he claims “they taste like any other duck”. This same friend dropped a freshly killed specimen off at the nature center yesterday. The intention was for me to give it to our captive eagle for dinner, but that destiny would had to wait until I had the chance to give the potential meal a visual once over.
The thing that immediately impresses you about this creature are their incredible feet. In a natural world of fantastic feet these peds are over the top – more like pea pods than duck feet. Well, part of that discrepancy can be explained because Coots are not ducks at all. They are members of the rail family. Most rails are small-bodied secretive waders who sneak through the muddy spaces in the marsh undergrowth. Coots, on the other hand, are colonial and aquatic. They play the part of the “crazy uncle” within the rail world and dress up in a costume that makes them look like a chicken in a duck outfit. Ducks have fully webbed feet, however, and coots have only partially webbed toes.
One wouldn’t think that this bird could ever walk on land with those over-sized green and blue feet. Oddly enough, not only can they walk on land, they frequently do perform the task – and do it well. Coots can even run if pressed to do so. John James Audubon once described a scene where he witnessed a veritable herd of coots rumbling over the landscape adjacent to a river. He said they looked for all the world like Guinea Hens. Audubon shot into that herd’o coots and killed four birds outright (not for food, but as artistic subjects). The rest flew out over the river where he continued to pursue them. On terra firma, the long slender toes are allowed to spread out to provide support. In the water the lobes flare out with each backstroke and withdraw as the feet are brought forward. An underside view reveals that the lobes fold back like airplane flaps (see here). These feet are perfectly designed multi-tasking tools.
During the breeding season coots even duke out their differences using their feet. They will go at each other like kick boxers until the issue is settled (when the old coot is defeated by the crazy young coot).
One look at the face of a coot will reveal that they know just how great their feet really are (see here). Just look at that wonderful little smirk – a smile retained even in death. The snow white beak of this bird, complete with a frontal shield topped with a dashing patch of dark red, is an amazing structure in and of itself. This is a chicken’s beak really- equally meant for active grazing on land and water, and for plucking snails and hard bodied invertebrates. No wonder the American coot is frequently referred as a Mud Hen (even though the name is also applied to the gallinule).
Unfortunately, we don’t have the time or space to look at the rest of the coot in question. Suffice it to say that the charcoal gray body is plump and the wings are far too short to work properly. But, like the feet, the wings do work and these creatures are capable of long migration flights. The ungainly nature of the coot is nothing more than a clever ruse to fool duck hunters and naturalists alike. They are neither sleek nor beautiful colored, but they are beautifully made if the beholder looks at them correctly.