Monday, October 23, 2017

Episode 391 (10-23-17): American Coot

CLICK HERE to listen to episode audio (3:39).

Transcript of audio, notes on the audio, photos, and additional information follow below.

All Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 10-20-17.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of October 23, 2017.

This week, we feature a feathered, floating mystery sound.  Have a listen for about 10 seconds, and see if you can guess what’s making these clucks, clacks, and cackles.  And here’s a rhyming hint: it sounds nothing like a flute; dives for a root or a shoot; acts towards other birds a bit like a brute; and has a name completing this rhyme, to boot!

SOUNDS - ~11 sec

If you guessed an American Coot, you’re right!  The American Coot is the only North American species of several coots found around the world.   It’s categorized in the family of rails, gallinules, and coots, and it’s considered the most abundant and most aquatic member of that family in North America.

Watery habitats, clucking calls, and an appearance described as chicken-like help give coots the nickname of “Mud Hen.”  In Virginia, the American Coot occurs in almost all counties, in a variety of freshwater habitats in the summer and in both freshwater and saltwater during the winter.  During migration and in winter, coots can be seen in large flocks, and such groupings are called various interesting names, including a “raft,” “codgery,” or “commotion.”  Coots are poor flyers and require long running and splashing take-offs, lending them another nickname of “spatterers.”  In the water, though, coots are skillful swimmers and divers, feeding on aquatic plants and algae and on small animal prey acquired from the surface or underwater; they’re also known to steal plants brought to the surface by diving ducks.  Coots may feed on certain crops, earning them a reputation in some areas as an agricultural pest.

Not beautiful, not a songster, a food thief saddled with a funny name—coots aren’t well-loved or widely respected.  But they’re an ecologically well-adapated and widespread component of many North American aquatic habitats.  And as Cornell University’s “All About Birds” Web site notes, “The waterborne American Coot is one good reminder that not everything that floats is a duck.”

Thanks to Lang Elliott for permission to use this week’s sounds, from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs, and we let the American Coot have the last call.

SOUND - ~4 sec


For more Virginia water sounds, music, and information, visit us online at, or call us at (540) 231-5463.  Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  Thanks to Stewart Scales for his banjo version of Cripple Creek to open and close the show.  In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


The sounds of the American Coot were taken from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs-Eastern Region CD set, by Lang Elliott with Donald and Lillian Stokes (Time Warner Audio Books, copyright 1997), used with permission of Lang Elliott, whose work is available online at the “Music of Nature” Web site,

Click here if you’d like to hear the full version (1 min./11 sec.) of the “Cripple Creek” arrangement/performance by Stewart Scales that opens and closes this episode. More information about Mr. Scales and the group New Standard, with which Mr. Scales plays, is available online at


American Coot painting originally published between 1827 and 1838 by John James Audubon in Birds of America (plate CCXXXIX [239]), as reprinted in 1985 by Abbeville Press, New York. Photo taken October 20, 2017, from the reprint copy (no. 6 of 350 copies printed in 1985) owned by Special Collections of Virginia Tech Libraries. Virginia Water Radio thanks Special Collections for permission to photograph their copy and for their assistance. Information about Birds of America is available from the National Audubon Society, online at
A flock--or raft, codgery, commotion, or several other names--of American Coots, photographed in Alaska. Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, made available for public use by the Service's National Digital Library, online at, accessed 10-19-17; URL for specific image was
Seasonal county distribution of American Coot in Virginia as of August 2005, according to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Map accessed online at


The scientific name of the American Coot is Fulica americana.

Here are some points about the American Coot, excerpted from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Fish and Wildlife Information Service/American Coot,” online at

Physical Description

“Length = 15 inches; slatey with dark, small head and neck, brown-black back, small whitish bill and frontal shield, white undertail and on trailing edge of wings; feet are green and lobed.”


“The breeding season in Virginia is May-September. …Breeding behavior very territorial… Year-round defense is well documented in coots.”


“Consists primarily of aquatic vegetation (often pirates plants such as wild celery from foraging ducks) such as algae, potamogetons, water milfoil, burreed, and chara.  Will also feed on fish, tadpoles, crustaceans, snails, worms, insects, and eggs from other marsh nesting birds.  Coots pirate food from other species, especially waterfowl, but are also victims of piracy. … They are also commensal feeders picking up leftovers from other species such as dabbling ducks.”


“This species tends to nest in a shallow platform of dead leaves and stems of marsh plants moored to clump of reeds or cattails….  [B]oth parents incubate, brood, and feed young (male may take on greater brooding duties); parents often chauffeur young on their back.”

Aquatic/Terrestrial Associations

“Predators include bald eagle and young may fall prey to turtles, bass and water snakes.”


“Freshwater marshes, ponds, wet meadows, lakes, reservoirs, sewage lagoons, marshy borders of creeks and rivers with abundant emergent vegetation.  Winter in ice-free fresh and brackish marshes along the coast.”

Animal or Plant Associations

“Cover vegetation may include cattail, softstem, bulrush, hardstem, sedge, willow, burreed.  Known to occupy habitats that may otherwise be occupied by waterfowl.”


Used in Audio

John James Audubon, “American Coot,” from Birds of America (1827-1838), Plate 239, accessed at the Audubon Web site, online at

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “All About Birds,” online at American Coot entry is online at

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and American Ornithologists’ Union, “Birds of North America Online,” online at (subscription required).

Encyclopedia Britannica, “Coot,” online at

Larry Jordan, The Birders Report, “American Coots Take Off” (December 11, 2012), online at

Alice Jane Lippson and Robert L. Lippson, Life in the Chesapeake Bay, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Md. (2006).

Chandler S. Robbins et al., A Guide to Field Identification of Birds of North America, St. Martin’s Press, New York, N.Y., 2001.

Stan Tekiela, Birds of Virginia Field Guide, Adventure Publications, Inc., Cambridge, Minn., 2002.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/McNary National Wildlife Refuge (Washington), “American Coots” (as of April 2015), online at

Valerie Van Way, “Approaches to Coot Management in California,” Proceedings of the Twelfth Vertebrate Pest Conference, March 1986, online at

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Fish and Wildlife Information Service/American Coot,” online at

For More Information about Birds in Virginia or Elsewhere

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “Merlin Photo ID.”  The application for mobile devices allows users to submit a bird photograph to get identification of the bird.  Information is available online at

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society, “eBird,” online at  Here you can find locations of species observations made by contributors, and you can sign up to contribute your own observations.

Virginia Society of Ornithology, online at  The Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to the study, conservation, and enjoyment of birds in the Commonwealth.

Xeno-canto Foundation Web site at The site provides bird songs from around the world.


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (  See particularly the Birds subject category.

Episode 165, 6/10/13 gives an overview of the bird family of rails, gallinules, and coots in Virginia.


The episode may help with the following Virginia 2010 English SOLs:

Reading Theme
8.4, 9.3, 10.3, 11.3, and 12.3 – knowledge of word origins, analogies, and figurative language to extend vocabulary development within authentic texts.

This episode may also help with the following Virginia 2010 Science SOLs:

Grades K-6 Earth Resources Theme
4.9 – Va. natural resources, including watersheds, water resources, and organisms.

Grades K-6 Life Processes Theme
K.7 – basic needs and processes of plants and animals.
1.5 - animals’ basic needs and distinguishing characteristics.
3.4 - behavioral and physiological adaptations.

Grades K-6 Living Systems Theme
2.5 - living things as part of a system, including habitats.
3.5 - food webs.
3.6 - ecosystems, communities, populations, shared resources.
4.5 - ecosystem interactions and human influences on ecosystem.
5.5 - cell structures and functions, organism classification, and organism traits.
6.7 - natural processes and human interactions that affect watershed systems; Va. watersheds, water bodies, and wetlands; health and safety issues; and water monitoring.

Life Science Course
LS.4 - organisms’ classification based on features.
LS.8 - community and population interactions, including food webs, niches, symbiotic relationships.
LS.9 - adaptations for particular ecosystems’ biotic and abiotic factors, including characteristics of land, marine, and freshwater environments.

Biology Course
BIO.8 - dynamic equilibria and interactions within populations, communities, and ecosystems; including nutrient cycling, succession, effects of natural events and human activities, and analysis of the flora, fauna, and microorganisms of Virginia ecosystems.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at

Following are links to previous Water Radio episodes (various topics) designed especially for certain K-12 grade levels.
Episode 249 (1-19-15) - on freezing and ice, for kindergarten through 3rd grade;
Episode 250 (1-26-15) - on boiling, for kindergarten through 3rd grade;
Episode 255 (3-2-15) - on density, for 5th and 6th grade;
Episode 282 (9-21-15) - on living vs. non-living, for kindergarten;
Episode 309 (3-28-16) - on temperature regulation in animals, for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Episode 332 (9-12-16) – on dissolved gases, especially dissolved oxygen in aquatic habitats, for 5th grade.