For the uninitiated, the word “coot” calls to mind nothing more than doddering old codgers and curmudgeons. Nature lovers, on the other hand, are privy to an entirely new complement of coots, a collection of charming charcoal wading birds found throughout most of the world.
Coots are mid-sized waders in the genus Fulica. Technically rails, coots are far more confiding and boldly colored than most of their kin in the family Rallidae. In fact, coots tend to live out loud under our very noses, safe from the scrutiny of an uninformed public that usually mistakes them for ducks in local parks. They resemble stealth gallinules in ninja plumage of black shading down to hues of soot and plumbeous. However, with their pugnacious, territorial ways and bold bills and frontal shields, they’re not sneaking up on anybody!
American Coots by Mike Bergin
Coots flaunt remarkable fissipalmate feet, which means their toes are lobed. This adaptation, shared with other waterbirds like grebes and phalaropes, is useful both to propel the swimming bird and to facilitate passage over matted floating vegetation. Fissipalmation is also instrumental to coots’ noted hardiness, helping the birds hold up in high temperatures by dissipating excess body heat.
This is what you see next to ‘fissipalmate’ in the dictionary!
There are 11 known living species of coot, many of which reside in South America, and a few extinct species as well:
- The American Coot (F. americana) is a common fixture of waterways all across North America. While it doesn’t usually overlap with other coots, it is distinguishable by its carnelian frontal shield and white bill tipped with a dusky ring. Fulica americana is represented at the western and eastern fringes of its territory by close congeners, the Hawaiian Coot (F. alai) and Caribbean Coot (F.caribaea) respectively.
- The only other coot to appear in large numbers in the northern hemisphere is the Eurasian or Black Coot (F.atra) of Europe and Asia. This common wader presents an unblemished alabaster bill and frontal shield.
- The Andean or Slate-colored Coot (F. ardesiaca) claims the western reaches of South America from top to bottom. ‘Slate-colored’ is hardly diagnostic when talking about coots, so recognize this species by its white bill and canary yellow frontal shield.
- The White-winged Coot (F. leucoptera) overlaps with the Andean Coot to the south but extends east throughout Brazil and the east coast of South America. F. leucoptera shows a broad, rounded gold tone shield and tinged bill.
- The Red-gartered Coot (F. armillata) can be found throughout F. leucoptera’s range but the two are unlikely to be mistaken. This bird has a yellow bill like most of the South American coots with a shield that looks like an exotic, pointed flower petal draped over its nose, mostly white with a ruby base that matches the bird’s eye. The red line connecting the shield to bill is not the garter but the saddle; this bird’s name comes from the reddish coloration of parts of its leg, usually greenish yellow in coots.
- The Red-fronted Coot (F. rufifrons) shares a lot of territory with the previous South American birds. This stocky bird wields a saffron dagger for a bill, an elongated maroon shield, and flaring white undertail coverts.
- The Giant Coot (F. gigantea) is, as the name advertised, the largest of the coots. This scarce bird subverts the usual design paradigm of southwestern South America by presenting a crimson bill, yellow frontal shield, and reddish legs. This coot of the high cordilleran zone is known for building enormous, conspicuous nest platforms in open water.
- The Horned Coot (F. cornuta) also covers the western portions of South America but is near threatened due to both habitat loss and human and animal predation. Another high altitude, platform-nesting coot, this bird has the expected yellow bill, but is famous for the rather unsightly black caruncle in place of a shield. Depending on the bird, this fleshy excrescence can look like a squid, leech, or miniature antler.
- Speaking of unsightly, the Red-knobbed or Crested Coot (F. cristata) is named for a bifurcated bulb resembling a painful blood blister above its white frontal shield. This mark is only evident during breeding season but the baby blue bill is adequate to distinguish the Red-knobbed from Eurasian when the two overlap. F. cristata can be found throughout much of Africa as well as southwestern portions of Europe.
Eurasian Coot by Corey Finger
Who are you calling an old coot?