January 2017 Bird Photo of the Month

Vigilant red eyes, special toes © Barbra Whitlam
American Coot (Fulica americana)

Did you know that thousands of American Coots descend upon Florida’s freshwater and coastal wetlands during winter months? They migrate from as far north as Canada, adding to our few resident coots. On lakes, shallow ponds and wetlands, they congregate, swimming together serenely in a group, jockeying their places, dipping their heads or diving under the water. Dipping their heads or flipping in unison, tails pointed in the air, they pull out their food of algae and aquatic plants roots, shoots, leaves, and seeds. They also may eat small aquatic animals as well as grazing on grasses and some grains. Notice their odd feet in Barbara Whitlam’s photograph. The lobes between each toe segment allow it to use its long toes to walk effectively on squishy mud or atop vegetation, yet act as ‘fins’ when swimming.

America Coots pump their heads when swimming, like a chicken thrusts its head forward and back as it walks. Though at first glance we may think they are small ducks, their bill shape is more pointed, with a white shield extending up their forehead. By beating their small wings and feet rapidly fleeing, they whirl noisily across water to escape into dense vegetation for cover. Yet here in Florida, we most often see them huddled in large flocks, loafing on the water, or all together start tipping up their tails, head under water searching for and devouring plants. Coots have smaller wings than ducks and thus do not fly as fast, so unlike ducks, they migrate under cover of night to avoid the predators that feed during the day.

Ancient fossils of American Coot bones have been found across North America from the Pliocene and Cenozoic eras millions of years before Homo sapiens evolved. What kind of birds did early Native Americans eat? Early kitchen midden excavations reveal almost half of the bird bones found are from American Coots, maybe because being slower than ducks, they were more easily hunted!

Juanita Baker, Coordinator
Florida Bird Photo of the Month
Pelican Island Audubon Society

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