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BREEDING BIRDS: AMERICAN COOT : AMERICAN COOT, (Calypte anna)

October 20, 1989|Clipboard researched by Susan Davis Greene and Janice L. Jones / Los Angeles Times

Description: Black head and neck, with small reddish-brown forehead shield, light bill with dark band near tip. Outer feathers of undertail coverts are white, inner ones black. Leg color ranges from greenish-gray in young birds to yellow or orangish in adults. In flight, a white trailing edge on most of wing is distinctive.

Habitat: Freshwater marshes, wetlands or near lakes and ponds.

Diet: Mostly aquatic vegetation and algae; also tadpoles, fish, crustaceans, snails, worms, aquatic and terrestrial insects, eggs of other marsh- nesting birds.

Displays: Male paddles after female, flapping wings; female dives if too closely pressed. Male paddles with head and neck on water, wingtips raised above, spreads and elevates tail to display white patches. Female assumes similar pose. .

Nest: Usually over water, in vegetation tall enough to conceal; consists of large floating cup of dead stems on platforms anchored to vegetation, lined with finer materials. Other platforms for resting and roosting, especially brood platform built mostly by male.

Eggs: Pinkish-buff, marked with blackish-brown. Eggs are around 1.9 inches long.

Natural history notes: Each year from October to April, Orange County is inundated with American coots. Last year, 50 permits to shoot coots were issued, mostly to golf courses. Mission Viejo, Woodbridge (Irvine) and many other communities with man-made lakes have the same complaint annually about these birds. They eat vegetation, destroy grass and defecate widely. Considering flocks may number up to 1,500 birds, coots may readily attain pest status.

Coots are noisy and aggressively territorial. They select from a repertoire of some 14 displays to communicate among themselves. Not only are coots demonstrative, they are also hardy. They can adjust quite well to hot temperatures. They have lobed feet, which, in addition to their use in battle, can effectively conduct heat out of the body.

They are opportunistic feeders. Besides hunting for themselves, coots also feed commensally by taking leftovers from other species such as dabbling ducks, or pirate plants brought to the surface by diving ducks. Groups of up to five juveniles may pirate aquatic vegetation from the bills of ducks and swans.

These birds are the least graceful of all marsh birds. Commonly called "splatterers," coots bob their heads while walking, quite likely because the head movements help them to judge the distance to their prey.

Breeding bird atlas: To report bird breeding activity in your neighborhood, or to get information on the breeding bird atlas (now in its fifth and final year), call Sea and Sage Audubon Society members Sylvia Gallagher, (714) 962-8990, or Nancy Kenyon, (714) 786-3160.

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Note: Map is divided into 5-kilometer squares so that Audubon Society volunteers can more easily survey areas on a regular basis.

Sources: Sea and Sage Audubon Society; "The Birder's Handbook," Ehrlich, Dobkin and Wheye, Fireside Books (1988); "Field Guide to the Birds of North America," National Geographic Society (1987); "Birds of Southern California: Status and Distribution," Garrett and Dunn, Los Angeles Audubon Society (1981).

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