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Focus on Wildlife: American Coot

American Coots, Duck Bay, Arboretum, Seattle, Washington, US

Paddling out from any launch spot around Seattle’s inland waterways in springtime, you’ll likely encounter dozens of American coots. These plump, dusky black waterbirds are distinguished by their rounded heads with red eyes and sloping white chicken-like bills tipped in a ring of black. They look and act like ducks — both dabbling and diving for their food — but in fact are more closely related to rails. The oils in their feathers naturally repel water so they can come up from a deep dive looking fresh and dry.

You’ll most likely encounter them swimming en masse — it’s not uncommon to see hundreds of them rafted up together just offshore. If you see them standing on a log or the shoreline take notice of their erect, spiny yellow legs and slightly webbed, chicken-like feet that allow them to thrive in such environments where a lot of shoreline climbing is paired with even more slow-speed paddling.

American Coots, Duck Bay, Arboretum, Seattle, Washington, US
Photos: Roddy Scheer

Their preferred source of nutrition is freshwater aquatic plants, and they can be helpful keeping some shoreline and riparian invasive plant species, such as Eurasian milfoil, in check. But they are not picky and have a diverse diet that includes beetles, dragonflies, crustaceans, snails, and even tadpoles and salamanders.

While American Coots are not as easily spooked as many other birds, they do feed off each other’s energy. If one bird gets startled and takes to the skies, the whole group usually follows suit in a raucous group takeoff. This safety-in-numbers strategy helps the birds thwart common predators like eagles or hawks looking to pick up a quick snack. That said, try not to paddle right into a flock of the birds to reduce the commotion factor and enjoy their otherwise calm presence on the lake.

While American Coots may not be the most charismatic or beautiful of wildlife species, paddling alongside them in a kayak is nevertheless a wild experience and a good reminder of why we need to respect and protect the environment.