Saturday, February 18, 2012

Mud Hen (American Coot)

Fulica americana
(click on photos to enlarge)
Side View of Adult Coot
These birds were the most commonly seen waterfowl during my outing on the lake. They tended to stay in flocks of about 6 to 15 and were easily irked by the boat. In fact, our tour guide even purposefully headed toward a group so that we could observe their notorious behavior of "pedaling," or skimming across the water. Apparently it takes them a great deal of effort to really get off the ground even though they are migratory birds. These birds are easily discernable with their black heads and white beaks. The groups tended to stay within 2-5 feet of the shoreline, and I never observed any out of the water, although they do occasionally stray to feed on the vegetation. This behavior serves to protect and to socialize, even though they are territorial during the breeding season. The American Coot lives in freshwater shallows such as ponds, lakes, and marshes, but have also been seen in manmade ponds of parks or gold courses.

A "cover" or "raft" of Coots
An adult may grow to about 1 foot long with a wingspan of  22 to 31 inches. Fossil records from the Middle Pleistocene found in the Anza-Borrego Desert in San Diego County indicate that they are native to the Pacific Coast. However, their range extends north to southern Quebec and south to northern South America. Coots in this area are most likely year-round residents, and more populations near the northern limits of their range are becoming year-round residents as well. Coots are rails, or members of the Rallidae family along with cranes and crakes. There is a richly documented fossil record in North American and Europe of rails and associated genera. 

                                                                (HD Recommended)

Frontal View
Across their range, Coots are prey to many predators including foxes, coyotes and skunks. At the lake however, they are more susceptible to great horned owls, California gulls, ospreys, and bald eagles that inhabit this area during the non-nesting season. Our naturalist-guide morbidly referred to them as “eagle food." This is especially true with juvenile eagles who are not yet capable of taking down larger prey. They are rarely hunted as game birds. Due to their widespread range and abundance, they may sometimes be considered an umbrella species with their health being indicative of the health of the greater environment. They are not, however, listed as endangered or threatened. 
An adult mid-scuttle

"American Coot." All About Birds. The Cornell Lab of Orthinology, 2011. 22 Feb. 2012.

Bridgman, Allison. "Fulica americana." Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, 2003. Web. 22 Feb. 2012. information/Fulica_americana.html

Brisbin, I. L., Jr., H. D. Pratt, and T. B. Mobray. American Coot (Fulica americana) and Hawaiian Coot (Fulica alai). In The Birds of North America, No. 697 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). 2002. The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

Olson, Storrs. "The Pleistocene Rails of North America." The Condor  76. (1974): 169-175. Web. 22 Feb. 2012.

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