The Mysterious Coot

March 29, 2009 by  

By Doug Leier

Coot on a nest

Coot on a nest

Have you ever thought about hunting coots?

To be honest, most hunters never even consider bagging one and bringing it home, even though they are readily available on many North Dakota waters and regulations allow a daily limit of 15 and a possession limit of 30.

But this season, I might think differently when I’m duck hunting and more coots (Fulica Americana) than gadwall come into my decoy spread.

Why, you might ask? Don’t they taste like slough bottom?

Not according to Dr. Mark Clark, a North Dakota State University professor who is researching coots and is well versed to address any hunter chat or coffee table banter regarding the infamous birds many call mud hens. Dr. Clark puts it quite eloquently: “Coots digest much of their food in the hind-gut via fermentation, which may diminish the taste of the meat — I have eaten coot and to me the flavor is not much different from waterfowl and much less pungent than sharp tailed grouse.”
 
And that’s just one of the relatively unknown characteristics that make coots such an interesting part of our outdoor world.

Coots, while listed in the waterfowl regulations, are more related to shorebirds than ducks. While they are closely associated with waterfowl because they use the same habitats, the reality is they are not ducks. This, in my estimation, may be a large reason why coots don’t get the respect of, say, a mallard. Their clumsy take-off and flight pattern may also have something to do with it.

But I say, let’s not disparage coots because they are not ducks. Let’s instead appreciate them for what they are.

One of the fascinating mysteries about coots is their migration. How many of us, planted in a duck marsh in late October, have seen large flocks of coots winging south with the aid of a cold northwest wind? Probably not many of us.

According to Dr. Clark, coots migrate at night, and in fairly large flocks. “Like most people think during migration their flights seem to be low, based on reports of collisions with trees, power lines and bluffs,” Dr. Clark said, “but I’ve read about a plane striking a coot at 5,000 feet.”

a huge raft of coots is a common site and often overlooked hunting opportunity

a huge raft of coots is a common site and often overlooked hunting opportunity

Coots begin moving out of North Dakota and southern Manitoba as early as late August, but some are usually observed in North Dakota up until freeze-up. Coots are known to over-winter on reservoirs in the south and southeastern United States, and they also migrate to Mexico, although this isn’t really well documented because of lack of band data.

However, coots banded in the North Dakota and Manitoba have turned up in California and Maine. “So they definitely move around,” Dr. Clark commented, “just very surreptitiously.”

Not only do people seldom see coots migrating, we seldom see them fly at all. If they come into duck decoys they’ll usually be swimming, and if you shoot at something flying over while they’re still milling around, they seem just as likely to swim away as opposed to a frightened take-off.

They do fly, however. Dr. Clark says he’s occasionally seen birds fly off a small wetland to go to another nearby wetland when disturbed by a visitor to their nest, but that’s definitely the exception and not the rule. “The birds can be very shy and are effective at diving or swimming back into cattails to disappear,” Dr. Clark said. “I think that’s what they prefer to do.”

While coots aren’t the most colorful or graceful bird, they have their niche and learning about their behavior and habits can deepen our appreciation for them.

So this fall, when a raft of coots floats across a slough, perhaps we’ll all have a little better understanding and respect for this common marsh inhabitant.


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