Fulica americanaAmerican coot(Also: mud hen)

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Geographic Range

Fulica americana, commonly known as the American coot, is a migratory bird. During the summer, these birds are found in freshwater lakes and ponds of the northern United States (New York and Massachusets) and southern Canada. During winter, they head to the southern portion of the United States and are found from California to Florida. Fulica americana lives mostly within the boundaries of the contiguous United States, but individuals have been found as far away as Alaska and South America (Halsey 1990; Terres 1980; Udvardy 1994).

Habitat

Whether wintering in the south or spending the summer in the north, coots live along waterways. They are freshwater birds and live in the shallows of freshwater lakes, ponds or marshes, although they may be seen in brackish water occasionally. They have also been found living in the manmade ponds of parks or golf courses (CSUB website 1998; Terres 1980).

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • lakes and ponds

Physical Description

Fulica americana is about 38 cm long and during the winter will weigh up to almost 0.9 kg. They have a wingspan of 58 to 71 cm. Their feathers are dark grey, with a white patch under the tail. The bill is also white, with a red swelling along the upper edge. Their lobed toes make coots powerful swimmers, especially in open water. Though capable of flight, coots have short, rounded wings which make it difficult to take off. Once in the air, coots can fly as well as any other bird (Grzimek 1975; Terres 1980; Udvardy 1994).

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Average mass
    900 g
    31.72 oz
  • Average mass
    450.8 g
    15.89 oz
    AnAge
  • Average length
    38.0 cm
    14.96 in
  • Range wingspan
    58.0 to 71.0 cm
    22.83 to 27.95 in

Reproduction

When it becomes time for the coot to mate (usually around May and June), the process begins with great show. Both sexes start out displaying themselves in front of the other. They call to one another, while splashing about. The mating process begins on the water and ends on the land. The female coot assumes a submissive posture (crouched with head down) as an invitation to the male for sex. She maintains this position while mating.

Both the male and female care for the eggs and the young. They work together to build a nest that is about 35 cm across. These nests are located at the edge of the reed cover at the edge of the pond. All nests have a ramp that leads into the water, so the young have easier access when coming and going from the nest. The female lays 8 to 10 eggs at a time. The eggs are a pink color with brown spots. Both the male and female take turns keeping the eggs incubated until they hatch in about 23 days.

The young look like the adults, except they are lighter in color. The parents share the job of feeding and teaching their young, dividing the number of young between them. After one month, the young can dive for their own food. They can fly 5 to 6 weeks after hatching and are fully independent after about 2 months (Grzimek 1975; Terres 1980).

  • Breeding interval
    Mating begins in May or June.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs in May through June.
  • Range eggs per season
    8 to 10
  • Average eggs per season
    10
    AnAge
  • Average time to hatching
    23.0 days
  • Average time to hatching
    23 days
    AnAge
  • Range fledging age
    5.0 to 8.0 weeks

Both the male and female incubate the eggs, which means the parents take turns keeping the eggs warm until they hatch. The eggs hatch about 23 days after the female lays them. The young look like the adults, except they are lighter in color. Both parents share the job of feeding and teaching their young, dividing the number of chicks between them. After one month, the young can dive underwater for their own food. They can fly 5 to 6 weeks after hatching and are fully independent after about 2 months.

Lifespan/Longevity

The average lifespan is 9 years.

Behavior

Fulica americana is a social bird species that lives in flocks. The coots are the only members of the rail family to live in groups. They can make a wide variety of noises, from grunting to clucking, as a means of communication, between each other and to threatening predators. There are two times a coot will splash: during mating season to attract attention and to discourage predators. The osprey (a type of hawk) is the main coot predator. Since F. americana is more adapted to life in the water than other birds, they cannot take off with a "dead start". (Other birds can take to flight when startled, even when previously standing still.) Instead, the coots take a running start across the water to become airborne. They are migratory, and migrate as a flock. Their migration, though, is based on the weather and therefore highly irregular (Grzimek 1975; Terres 1980; Udvardy 1994).

Communication and Perception

American Coots can make a wide variety of noises, from grunting to clucking, as a means of communication, between each other and to threatening predators. There are two times a coot will splash: during mating season to attract attention and to discourage predators. American Coots also use their good sense of vision to communicate.

Food Habits

Fulica americana is an omnivorious species. It will eat small aquatic animals (fish or tadpoles), insects, and vegetation found in the pond. Coots have the ability to dive after its food, much like ducks. When diving, they seek the plants that grow on the bottom of the pond. After bringing plants up to the surface, coots will go through them looking for the edible bits. Even though F. americana is capable of searching out its own food, it has been known to steal food from other birds (Grzimek 1975; Terres 1980; Udvardy 1994).

  • Animal Foods
  • amphibians
  • fish
  • insects
  • mollusks
  • aquatic crustaceans
  • Plant Foods
  • leaves

Predation

American coots have a certain sound to warn other birds of predators. They will also splash around in the water to discourage predators. They are preyed upon by osprey and bald eagles as adults. Eggs and nestlings are preyed upon by raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes, snapping turtles, and many other small predators.

Ecosystem Roles

American Coots influence populations of aquatic invertebrates and plants and serve as a prey base for predators in their habitats.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Due to the awkwardness of the coot's take-off and early flight, they are not typically hunted as game birds. (Halsey 1990).

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Coots negatively affect humans when they choose to nest on golf courses or parks and leave excrement behind (CSUB 1998).

Conservation Status

Fulica americana is an abundant and widespread species. The American coot is not endangered, nor is it threatened. The Hawaiian coot, Fulica americana alai is the only subspecies of the coot family that is endangered. This bird has been on the endangered species list since 1970. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2000)

Other Comments

Fulica americana is the only member of the rail family that has truly adapted to live on the water. The average lifespan of this bird is about nine years (Grzimek 1975; Terres 1980).

Contributors

Allison Bridgman (author), University of California, Irvine, Rudi Berkelhamer (editor), University of California, Irvine.

Glossary

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

freshwater

mainly lives in water that is not salty.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males

marsh

marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.

migratory

makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

omnivore

an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

CSUB, 1998. "Animals of the Environmental Studies Area at CSUB" (On-line). Accessed October 16, 2000 at http://www.csubak.edu/Fact/ESAAnimals.html.

Grzimek, B. 1972 - 1975. Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia Vol. 8 Birds II. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co..

Halsey, W. 1990. Collier's Encyclopedia Vol. 7. New York: Macmillian Educational Co..

Terres, J. 1980. Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. New York: Alfred A Knopf.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2000. "U.S. Listed Bird Species Profiles 1, Endangered Species" (On-line). Accessed October 16, 2000 at http://endangered.fws.gov/birds1.html.

Udvardy, M. 1994. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Western Edition. New York: Alfred A Knopf.