What’s that small black duck with a white bill?
VICKSBURG, MISS. — As autumn deepens across North America, waterfowl numbers are swelling in lakes, rivers, ponds, and even puddles. You might be seeing some new birds on the water near you. And every year, there’s one bird that seems to get people especially curious. It’s smaller than a Mallard, its head and body are black, and its bill is white. It’s usually found in swimming in groups, often in parks and other areas near people. But what is it called?
The black “duck” with a white beak is an American Coot
Here’s a picture of a coot (Fulica americana):
If you look closely, you can see the American Coot’s bright red eye and dark reddish forehead knob, the dark ring near the end of its bill, and white under its tail. (Note: If you live in Europe or another part of the world, odds are you have a similar-looking but slightly different coot species in your area. There are several species around the world, including the very widespread Eurasian Coot in Europe, north Africa, Asia, and Australia.)
At this point, you may be thinking that this sort of looks like the birds you saw, but you aren’t quite sure. Maybe you’re thinking something like this: But the birds I saw were darker black or slate gray. Or, I didn’t see the red eye, forehead knob, or ring on the bill. Or, The birds I saw were bigger/smaller than that. Don’t worry. No other North American bird shares the coot’s dark body plumage and bright white bill. Light and distance can affect how you perceive a bird, and which details you see or remember. If you got the white bill and the blackish head and body, you got a coot. Now, here’s step two.
Coots aren’t ducks
Yes, they float and swim like ducks. But lots of different birds do that. Aside from their swimming habits, coots are actually quite different from ducks. Start by studying the coot’s bill shape:
See how pointed the coot’s bill is? And it’s a little bit laterally compressed. That means it’s slightly flattened on the sides, as if you took it between your palms with your thumbs facing up and gave it a little squeeze. You can even see the bird’s nostrils — slits about halfway down the the sides of its bill. All this is very different from a blunt, flat, shovel-shaped duck bill with nostrils on top.
And there’s more. We often see coots swimming in the water, but if you see one on land, be sure to check out its feet. Here’s a beautiful shot by markjdos.
Look at those long, lobed toes! Totally different from ducks’ fully webbed (and much shorter) feet. Coots’ toes are suitable for swimming but also for walking around in dense, wet reeds and vegetation.
So if coots aren’t ducks, what are they?
Coot family tree
Coots belong to a family that includes rails, gallinules, and moorhens. Here’s a very colorful coot relative, the Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinica). Notice the similarities in its head and bill structure. It has long toes like a coot, but they aren’t lobed. Purple Gallinules spend less time swimming and more time creeping through dense vegetation.
And here’s another family member, the Clapper Rail (Rallus longirostris), which lives in saltmarshes, where it often remains hidden in thick grasses.
Coots, gallinules, and rails are in an order called Gruiformes, along with the big, stately cranes and a handful of other birds like the Limpkin (familiar to many Florida residents), and a few odd birds of the South American rain forests. The order name Gruiformes comes from the Latin word grus, which means “crane.” These words are similar in many European languages; they all came from an ancient Indo-European root word.
So now when you see coots mixed in with domestic ducks at the park…
…or grazing on grass and other plants on the lawn…
…you will know their name and a little bit more about them. Enjoy the coots!