All that glitters is not gold, and all that floats is not necessarily a duck.
Though you may see an American Coot floating in the water, it is not a duck. They are in a different “order” (a taxonomic rank used for biologic classification) from ducks and are more closely related to Sandhill Cranes. Their feet are not webbed like a duck but rather have lobed scales on their lower legs and feet. The lobed scales fold back with each step making it easier to walk on land but also support them on soggy ground. They also use their feet to defend their territory. Since their heads bob when they walk or swim, they are nicknamed “marsh hen” or “mud hen”.
Coots are dark gray to black, with a bright-white, sloping bill, small tail, short wings and large feet. A small patch of red above the bill may be seen at close range. They are a medium-sized bird with a length between 15 and 16 inches and a wingspan of 23 to 25 inches.
Coots are found in the Pacific and southwestern United States year-round. You will find them in marshes and swamps, in sewage ponds and around large lakes.
They eat algae, duckweed, wild rice, wild celery, waterlilies, cattails, as well as some terrestrial plants, leaves of oak, elm and cypress trees. To round out their diet, they eat beetles, dragonflies, snails, tadpoles and salamanders. Coots are kleptoparasitic, a big word that means if they don’t feel like hunting for their meal, they will just steal it from another bird.
In summer, coots move north to breed migrating mostly at night. They build floating nests shaped like a shallow basket lined with smooth material to hold between 8 and 12 eggs. Incubation takes 23-25 days and the young are ready to leave the nest just 6 hours after hatching and can fly after about 7 to 8 weeks. The bright plume feathers on the babies are called “chick ornaments”. The brighter the plume feathers, the more preferential feeding they get from the mother.
Coots’ appetites have a tremendous ecological impact. A local coot population in Virginia was estimated to eat 216 tons of (dry weight) vegetable matter per winter.
Like other wetland birds, coots help scientists monitor the environment. They can accumulate toxins from agricultural runoff and industrial wastes providing a way to spot problems in the local area.
A group of coots is called a “cover” or “raft”. The raft likely refers to their tendency to gather in large numbers, sometimes into the thousands. The oldest known coot was just over 22 years old.