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Coots don’t get much respect

If you haven’t canoed on Upper Klamath Lake, you are missing a treat. Don’t wait until June and July when mosquitoes rule the marsh, but in early spring the outing is stunning.

My wife and I recently paddled our way through the channels among the bullrushes as the marsh showed the first hints of spring. The surrounding mountains stood out in the clear air with the spring snowpack shining white. As we made our way, numerous small flocks of American coots and bufflehead swam ahead of us and melted into the marsh.

I began to think about the coots. No one pays much attention to them, or if they do, it’s seldom in respectful terms. First, there is the name “coot.” It was originally a nickname given to a bald person. Many coots have a white shield that extends from the bill up onto the forehead. Hence the name.

Then there is the widely used nickname of “mudhen,” which is descriptive but hardly flattering. Other local names around the country include shuffler, tule chicken, splatterer, crow-duck, and blue peter. The last is used in many parts of the southeast and Midwest but makes little sense to me. What is blue about a coot? In parts of Texas, they are called “scum-diving swamp turkeys.” Did I mention coots get little respect?

Coots are not the most graceful bird. They have to work very hard to take flight. They run like crazy over the water with flailing wings building up speed, but often on the verge of success they simply stop. Watching them walk across an ice-covered lake in winter as they move from one patch of open water to another can be very amusing as they struggle to stay upright.

Coots build a floating nest secured to the bullrushes. The fluffy young are nearly bald with reddish-orange skin that seems to glow. Coots are largely vegetarian, which may explain, in part, their great success. There is no shortage of pondweed and algae.

A common misconception is that they are a kind of waterfowl. They are the size of a small duck and swim and dive as well as any. But if you take a closer look, you will see the bill is more chicken-like than duck-like. Then there are the feet. They are not webbed but lobate. It’s as if the feet were ironed flat. They have flaps of skin extending from the sides of the toes. Instead, they are more closely related to rails and cranes.

There are two coots in North America, the second being the Caribbean coot. However, there are many others around the world with the greatest number in the Andes of South America. They have giant coots, horned coots, red-gartered coots, Andean coots, white-winged coots and red-fronted coots. They are all roundish, black, swimming birds, and they can be a challenge to distinguish.

The other common bird we saw from the canoe was the bufflehead, a small, dapper black and white diving duck. They, too, have their share of nicknames, including buffalohead and butterball. In their journals, Lewis and Clark referred to them as “butter boxes.” I’m not sure of the meaning, but I assume it was coined by someone with a culinary interest.

Stewart Janes is a retired biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.