American coot (Fulica americana)

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American coot fact file

American coot description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderGruiformes
FamilyRallidae
GenusFulica (1)

The most aquatic, abundant and widely distributed rail in North America, the American coot is one of the continent’s most familiar wetland birds (3). An instantly recognisable species, colourful yellow to orange legs and feet, and a bright white, triangular-shaped bill, contrast starkly with the largely all-black plumage (2) (4). The male and female are indistinguishable except for size, with the male usually slightly larger, and call, with the male and female uttering slightly different variations of grunts, squawks and croaks (3). The juvenile, however, has a bald red head and goes though an immature plumage of dull grey, with a lighter face and chest, before taking on the colouration of the adult. The American coot propels itself at the water’s surface with repeated forward and backward pumps of the head, and while submerged, this accomplished swimmer and diver uses its lobed toes to skilfully manoeuvre its body to forage for aquatic plants (3). On land and in the air, however, it is more awkward. It walks with an ungainly waddle, all the while flicking the cocked tail, exposing the white undersides, and to take to the air, this clumsy flier requires long running takeoffs, and usually flies low over water with the head, neck and legs outstretched (3) (5) (6).  

Size
Head-body length: 34 – 43 cm (2)
Wingspan: 60 – 70 cm (2)
Male weight: 576 – 848 g (2)
Female weight: 427 – 628 g (2)
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American coot biology

An opportunistic feeder, the American coot feeds mainly on plant material, but will also eat insects, snails, tadpoles, and small fish (2). While breeding, it gorges on seasonally abundant water insects, and the chicks are fed almost exclusively on this arthropod prey, until they gradually switch to a more vegetarian diet (8). This adaptable bird will also walk considerable distances to graze on terrestrial grasses and even scavenge for dead birds (3). On water, it may upend to feed upon submerged vegetation or dive in shallow water before bringing its food back up to the surface to consume it (2) (3).

Although gregarious for much of the year, during the breeding season, which runs from April to July in North America, the American coot separates into monogamous pairs which fiercely defend territories from other coots (2). Renowned for the aggressiveness with which it repels intruders, the male American coot marks its territory by patrolling, charging and water splashing, but on occasions fighting ensues, and it will viciously attack trespassers by striking with the bill and slashing with the claws. Shortly after arriving at breeding sites, the bond between breeding partners is reinforced by courtship displays involving bill touching, head bowing and preening (3). A floating nest made of piles of vegetation anchored to a bank is then constructed by both birds, usually within a few metres of open water. A clutch of 6 to 15 eggs is subsequently laid and incubated for 22 to 27 days. Capable of swimming almost immediately after hatching, the chicks soon leave the nest, but regularly return to the platform to be brooded and fed by the parent birds, before eventually becoming fully independent three to ten weeks later (2).  

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American coot range

The American coot is found across North and Central America, from southeast Alaska, east to Novia Scotia, southwards to the West Indies, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and possibly also Ecuador, although it may now be extinct there (2) (7). Populations in the west and south of its range may remain at the same location year-round, but the most northerly populations migrate southwards before the onset of winter (3).

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American coot habitat

Preferring freshwater habitats, the American coot is most commonly found on reed-fringed lakes and ponds, open marshes and slow-flowing rivers, but in winter it may also be found on salt-marshes, sheltered coasts and estuaries, and some artificial habitats, such as crayfish ponds (2). For nesting, this waterbird requires tall vegetation in shallow water (5)

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American coot status

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern

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American coot threats

Although now abundant and widespread, the American coot suffered massive declines in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as a result of hunting and wetland loss in its main breeding range in the mid-west United States and east-central Canada. However, due to its ability to quickly colonise new and restored habitats and its relative tolerance of disturbance, over the last three decades the species recovered from previous declines and today is one of the most abundant waterbirds in North America (3). The American coot is now even considered an agricultural pest in some areas, such as rice fields and golf courses, and as a listed game bird, around 8,000 are killed annually in Canada and 880,000 in the United States (2) (3). However, the complete recovery of this species is hindered by the continuing loss of wetlands across its range, but in favourable habitat it is still abundant and the population may number as much as several million (7).

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American coot conservation

Although not the target of any known conservation efforts, the American coot has benefited from the conservation of other waterbird species (2). Many such conservation measures are detailed in the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, which sets out a strategy to protect waterbird populations and their habitats across the United States and Canada, and has identified a number of key areas that warrant greater protection, many of which are also of importance to the American coot (3) (9). The Farm Act of 1985 also discourages farmers from draining wetlands, thereby preventing further wetland loss. In addition, it has been recommended that any restoration work on wetland habitat supporting American coot populations should focus on creating a combination of open water and stands of aquatic vegetation to increase the amount of available nesting habitat (3).

ARKive is supported by OTEP, a joint programme of funding from the UK FCO and DFID which provides support to address priority environmental issues in the Overseas Territories, and Defra
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Find out more

For additional information on the America coot, see:

To find out about the conservation of birds in the Americas, see:

For more information on this and other bird species please see:

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Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

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Glossary

Arthropods
A very diverse group of animals that includes crustaceans, insects and arachnids. All arthropods have paired jointed limbs and a hard external skeleton (exoskeleton).
Incubate
To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
Monogamous
Having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.
Territory
An area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a colony.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (July, 2010)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (2001) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Brisbin, I.L.Jr. and Mowbray, T.B. (2002) American coot (Fulica Americana). Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Birds of North America Online.
  4. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology (July, 2010)
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Coot/id
  5. Seattle Audubon Society (July, 2010)
    http://www.seattleaudubon.org/birdweb/bird_details.aspx?id=131
  6. U.S. Geological Survey (July, 2010)
    http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/i2210id.html
  7. BirdLife International (July, 2010)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/species/index.html?action=SpcHTMDetails.asp&sid=2946&m=0
  8. Perrins, C. (2009) The Encyclopedia of Birds. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  9. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (July, 2010)
    http://www.fws.gov/birdhabitat/nawmp/index.shtm
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Image credit

American coot landing on water  
American coot landing on water

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