What’s that small black duck with a white bill?

2010 November 14
by David J. Ringer

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):

American 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:

American Coot head and bill

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.

lobed feet of American Coot

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.

Purple Gallinule, Porphyrio martinica

And here’s another family member, the Clapper Rail (Rallus longirostris), which lives in saltmarshes, where it often remains hidden in thick grasses.

Clapper Rail, Rallus longirostris

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…

coots and other waterbirds

…or grazing on grass and other plants on the lawn…

flock of coots grazing

…you will know their name and a little bit more about them. Enjoy the coots!

American Coot, Fulica americana

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65 Responses
  1. March 23, 2014

    Oh my goodness! Amazing article dude! Thanks, However I am
    experiencing problems with your RSS. I don’t understand why I am unable to
    join it. Is there anybody else having the same RSS problems?
    Anybody who knows the solution can you kindly respond? Thanks!!

  2. dezirae permalink
    April 29, 2014

    thanks i saw one and i was wondering what it was :-)

  3. Michelle permalink
    October 11, 2014

    Thank you! I see them at lake Merritt all the time and was wondering about them. Very interesting article.

  4. Rajendran permalink
    January 30, 2015

    I was intrigued by this bird when I first saw their feet. Even though they are not soft looking like ducks, the ducks were meaner in taking away its food when I threw some bread pieces (i didnt know then that I shouldn’t feed them). I asked the people who live here and no one knew. I searched for a few times about its name, only today I got the results in the images. My first siting was in fountain hills park in Arizona. Its a common bird there. Thank you very much for this wonderful article.

  5. Theresa Rideout permalink
    June 2, 2015

    Yup thats the ones we got out back, in the pond .

  6. James permalink
    August 24, 2015

    A mother and her family have come to live in a pond right by our house in Calgary, Alberta. I was wondering what they were. My daughter loves how they “rubberneck” to help propel themselves when swimming. They are experts and diving and grabbing food from the bottom of pond. Thanks!

  7. Snazz permalink
    August 27, 2015

    Thank you for the great information on this bird. We have had our house on Roosevelt lake for over 10 years and this the first time we have seen these birds here. There we’re only two, are they life mates and why, all of a sudden they are here? I am also wondering do they migrate? Thank you!

  8. Donna knobbe permalink
    October 26, 2015

    I have one injured in my front yard. What should I do to help it?

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