American Coot running on water
It took me a long time to get into American Coots.  I mean, really, what’s to like about coots.  They are one of the most widespread of North American birds so they are not a “high value” species for birdwatchers, they lack colorful plumage and beautiful song, they are feeble in the air and ungainly on land.  Children observing them at local fishing ponds refer to them as “ugly ducklings,” and my mother, a casual but keen observer of nature called them “dirty old coots” whenever we encountered them in my youth.

If you didn’t know how old I am and I told you how many years went by between my first observation of coots and the first time I cared enough to research something about them, you’d figure I am now older than dirt.  There were the odd times, of course, when I’d come across some peripheral reference to coots while researching other species.  Like, did you know coots fly so slowly they are one of the few birds Bald Eagles can catch live?

I discovered that fun fact researching my very favorite American Coot story.  It happened one autumn over at the Bosque in New Mexico.  I had set up with my telephoto lens focused on an adult Bald Eagle atop a prominent, lone snag in the middle of the entrance pond.  In the harsh light of midday I snapped a couple uninspiring images, the eagle left, and I picked up the tripod to leave.  But wait, before I got very far I saw it returning.  With something dangling from its talons.

Ensconced again on its favorite perch, the eagle began plucking that something, dark feathers flying on the breeze.  A quick look with the binoculars confirmed the prey was an American Coot.  I snapped off a couple more shots, then left the scene without even reviewing them on the back of the camera.  Imagine my utter disbelief in checking the day’s images that evening and discovering four coot legs with their distinctive lobately webbed toes dangling beneath the feeding raptor.  The eagle had captured two birds, putting into graphic context the meaning of “one fell swoop!”
Bald Eagle plucking two(!) American Coots
One day a couple years ago, out of boredom as I waited near a pond for Ospreys, I snapped off a couple frames of the local coots and had a moment--every avian species is unique and merits observation and understanding.  My lenses began to see the stark beauty of the contrasting white on black color scheme with its two touches of red, the iris and the callus at the base of the frontal shield.  Then I noticed something else.  One of the coots was towing a loose reed into a bed of standing reeds.

American Coot with nesting material
Perhaps nesting material?  I was hooked.  As a photographer I evolved years ago to action and lifestyle.  I forgot about the absent Ospreys, and began staking out the area of the reed bed, hoping to make up for my former indifference and delve into essence of cootdom.  The reeds were too dense for me to observe the actual nest, typically a floating platform of vegetative debris anchored to vertical reeds, and I never witnessed copulation, but one morning I heard incessant peeping and discovered four babies scooting along the interface of reeds and water.
American Coot fledglings staying close
Here’s your anthropomorphism alert—American Coot babies are precious.  They are precocial and capable of swimming at six hours after hatching.  Initially they are fed animal matter brought to the nest, but upon leaving the nest they begin picking at floating, filamentous plant material.  Like grebes, fledgling coots will ride on parents’ backs.  The parents are attentive and protective, no surprise as ubiquitous as the species is.  I was able to observe the youngsters through the dog days of summer as they grew and gradually lost their bright pinfeathers and scarlet-orange bills.
American Coot hitching a ride
And then they were gone.  Research shows that young coots are driven from their natal territories at about eighty days, typically dispersing to other ponds in the vicinity.  I was still seeing juvenile Common Moorhens and Pied-billed Grebes that shared the coots’ pond, but perhaps these were offspring from a second brood.  American Coots are monogamous within a breeding season, but for warm weather “locals” who don’t migrate it seems they would be monogamous over a lifetime, loyal to a providential territory.  I was about to observe proof of this.

On the pond I had staked out I had seen multiple pairs of coots, each protective of their own patch of disjunctive reeds.  Now these empty nesters began partial intermingling toward the center of the pond, roaming farther from their respective home patches.  And as cooler autumn temperatures seemed to increase hormonal activity, I began to witness a completely different side of the American Coot “personality.”  It’s not pretty.

American Coots have been described as querulous and quarrelsome.  Indeed!  The coot pairs, “mine” and their neighbors, increasingly began chasing intruders, particularly conspecifics, from the waters surrounding their territories.  Initially when another pair encroached, one of the “home” pair, presumably the male, would lower its head to water level and torpedo directly toward the interlopers.  I’ve labeled images of this aggressive behavior “territorial coot on a mission.”

American Coot on a mission
These missions typically ended in one of two ways:  either the target bird would swim out of the “wrong neighborhood,” frantically if the pursuant got too close, and then the aggressor would abandon the pursuit, returning to its mate, looking quite smug I thought; or the target bird would be late in recognizing its mistake and simply dive and disappear as the pursuant closed to within striking distance.

Striking distance?  Yes, occasionally, whether due to the interloper being slow or maybe just as ill-tempered as the defendant, the former would turn and engage.  Engage?  Yes, first a face-off, then long-toed, needle-nosed talons bared, then both parties laying back on outstretched wings raking at one another’s breast and belly trying to force the opponent backwards under the water.

American Coots, submission
The engagements I witnessed lasted anywhere from sixty seconds in one place to five minutes over several sections of the pond.  It was not uncommon in the longer battles for the mates of the initial combatants also to engage, and once I saw three pairs involved.  I never saw blood, and the loser always emerged from the water.  Research indicates, however, that very occasionally these engagements can end in a death.

I’ve seen American Coots from both sides now.  To describe the cycle of coot behavior to others of my species I can only ascribe adjectives understood by all of us.  I’ve seen coots act amiable and industrious, attentive and protective, combative and savage.  Sounds sort of like, by turns, all of us.  That’s why I always give short shrift to biologically correct misgivings about anthropomorphism.

So, I’m finally into coots.  Now that I’m really looking, I realize their unique beauty and the fascinating nuances of their behavioral life cycle.  They’re everywhere and they’re down here at our level, unlike songbirds in the treetops and raptors in the ether.  Next time you’re bored with your birdwatching, watch coots for half an hour.  What’s not to like about them?
American Coot feeding baby