Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fulica americana

Yesterday was the first day of winter. Let's get excited about our days getting longer! Even though we're experiencing freezing temperatures and the lowest amount of sunlight of the year there's still a fair amount of wildlife in the area. Specifically, water birds. I went to the pond yesterday and found this:

It may be a little hard to tell but those are herring gulls and mallards out on the ice. I was especially amused by this image:

A male and female mallard walking across the ice slowly and carefully. They forgot their duck boots! But among all these relatively common and well known water birds we see in New England is another.

Do you see the one I mean? Just there, in the middle of all the mallards there is a gray and black bird with a white beak. It's a coot. Coots are smaller than mallards and can be found in and around bodies of fresh water in most of North America. They appear a lot like ducks most of the time, bobbing at the surface and diving for food.

When I first started noticing the coots I thought the were ducks. But they're actually in the order of birds colloquially known as cranes containing true cranes, bustards, sunbittern and coots. Rails are technically coots. This particular coot is the North American Coot which, as I mentioned, can be found from Canada to southern US and from the east coast to California. They are omnivores and feed on plant material as well as small animals such as fish, tadpoles and insects. These birds, like many north american waterbird species, serve as an important component to freshwater ecosystems. They impose predation pressures on many aquatic animals and in turn their eggs are preyed upon by many larger animals such as raccoons (Procyon lotor) and foxes (Vulpes vulpes). Supposedly they are migratory and travel to the southern part of the country during the cold months. Either we're seeing some change in that behavior or these coots are just on a stop over from even further north.

I find coots to be especially enjoyable water birds to watch. Their small bodies are often pushed about at the surface of the water by even the smallest wake and when two coots meet they often squabble briefly, giving them a somewhat comedic personality. But they are clearly capable swimmers and divers. When they leave the water one clearly sees that they are not ducks at all, their long, lithe legs gracefully take them around the shore in search of other food sources or a place to rest. The next time you're at a pond or fresh water marsh look for these small gray and black birds.


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