Dusky Beauties, or: Please Don’t Talk Smack About Our Coots
Each species is a masterpiece, a creation assembled with extreme care and genius. —Edward O. Wilson
I’m easily distracted by critters — no matter how common they may be. It could be an Eastern Harvest Mouse that grabs my attention for a half-hour. On a recent stroll around our wetlands, I was entranced by the coloring of our very common American Coot, as a mating pair stood in the shallow waters at dusk. Their dark grey / black feathers, white bill, and red eyes against the darkening waters of the approaching night sky was lovely. It wasn’t a Great egret in full breeding plumage, no…. But just as striking.
There weren’t many other human visitors, but I managed to attract a doozy. Off-season, I’m alone in the wetlands; during the season, I’m accompanied by a bevy of snowbirds. A female leaned over to see what I was engaged with — it had to be an exceptional find, after all — and *snorted* before replying to her equally charming companion: UGH! UG-AH-LY! And BORING. WHAT’S THE POINT?!? I was ready to say the same about her outfit, but she stomped off to insult some other hapless bird in the nature preserve before I could reply.
American Coots may be common in certain areas — in Florida, for instance, they’re year-round residents — but ugly? Boring? Unnecessary? Honestly. Do I go to your home state and randomly insult the poor animals? No. And not to be trite, but ALL creatures deserve our respect. Just because they’re common doesn’t mean that they’re 1) not beautiful and 2) not imperative to the ecosystem.
As such, here are a few tidbits about these petite and lovely obsidian creatures, courtesy of Cornell, to dispense with those boring and unnecessary commentaries:
- Coots have a profound ecological impact in the wetlands: One estimate from Back Bay, VA, suggests that the local coot population ate 216 tons (in dry weight) of vegetation per winter.
- They’re long-living: The oldest known American Coot lived to be at least 22 years, 4 months old!
- Looks like a duck, swims like a duck, but….: Coots don’t have webbed feet. Each one of the coot’s toes has broad lobes of skin that help it kick through the water; these broad lobes fold back each time the bird lifts its foot, so it doesn’t impede walking on dry land, though it helps to support the bird in the mucky wetlands.
- Coots help science! Because coots are so common and widespread, scientists will monitor them as a way of tracking problems in the environment at large.