If you’ve been to a lake or pond or pretty much any place with standing water in South Dakota, it’s likely you’ve seen an American Coot. Round black birds with bright white bills, coots gather in flocks of hundreds or thousands in the winter, sometimes mixing with flocks of ducks.
Don’t let that fool you: coots aren’t ducks. And although they are sometimes called “mud hens,” they aren’t chickens, either. Instead of webbed feet, coots have four toes (three facing forward, one backward) each with lobes of skin that help them both swim (like a duck) and walk on land (somewhat like a chicken). Not the most graceful of birds, coots run quite a long way across the water in order to take flight.
At this time of year, coots are building nests—seven to nine of them per pair. Look for them among the reeds or cattails in marshy areas. Coots attach their nests to vegetation so they don’t float away and pick the best one (or two) to lay their eggs. But as anyone who has ever tried to sail a basket knows, they aren’t exactly watertight. Thus, the nests slowly sink and have to be continuously rebuilt over breeding season.
Coots are spectacularly badly behaved. Coots are nest parasites and will lay some of their eggs in other coots’ nests. Although they lay eight to twelve eggs of their own, coots are often able to recognize slight variations in egg color and pattern in order to identify and discard the eggs that aren’t theirs. You’ll likely see coots both foraging for food with their heads under the water or grazing on plants or grain on land. They are, however, not vegetarians and will eat bugs, small amphibians, and even the eggs of ducks they flock with. Coots are pirates; they steal food from their duck neighbors—behavior that can be seen even in coot chicks.
It should not come as a surprise that coots get into frequent fights. Scientists at Stanford University describe their technique: “While fighting, a coot usually sits back on the water and grabs its opponent with one long-clawed foot while attempting to slap the contender with the free one and jab it with its bill.” Coot chicks can do this at just a few days old.
So why the phrase “old coot” to describe a foolish and grumpy old man? If the examples of coot behavior aren’t enough of an explanation, there are other theories. The Latin name for the American Coot is Fulica americana—and fulica sounds a lot like fool. The blog Grammarphobia explains that centuries ago “coot” was a general term for all kinds of waterfowl. One such bird, the Common Murre, was known for allowing itself to be captured on its nest rather than flying away. Foolish behavior, indeed.
Still, I’m fond of coots. They are fun to watch on water and land, and if they’re a little grumpy and goofy, maybe that’s just part of their charm.