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. November 15, 2010

    Nice close-ups of those technicolor feet!

  2. November 15, 2010

    Lovely photos! It’s interesting to see the differences between the American coot and the European coot found over here in the UK. I love coots’ feet, and the photo of them here is excellent!

  3. Greg permalink
    November 15, 2010

    Great to see you back at “home” at Search and Serendipity! Looking forward to your continued posts!

  4. Tabbetha Guadalupe permalink
    March 19, 2011

    Today was the very first time I have ever seen an American Coot..and to tell you the truth I would love to see them again!! I don’t know how long they will be in Tennessee but I hope its for a long time. They are amazing!

  5. cmsmoker permalink
    April 7, 2011

    I thought I was seeing things when I noticed this creature swimming around a retention pond here in the city. I only saw a single bird which seems odd , especially since the article mentions that they travel in groups. It was a nice change from the mallards, Canadian geese and the gulls that frequent Indianpolis, IN.

  6. connie permalink
    May 1, 2011

    I just saw a group of coots for the first time myself today. I thought it was a group of black ducks. They were fishing in the water so I did not get to see those amazing feet. They are all the way up here in northern illinois. Quite amazing!

  7. Victor permalink
    September 5, 2011

    Вчера в Горелово (Санкт-Петербург) в небольшом пруду наблюдали ПАРУ лысух в обществе обыкновенных уток. Кормили уток внучки, но лысухи робели, возможно, боялись собаки. Размер ЭТИХ необычных для наших мест птиц такаой же, как и у “наших уток”, правда, БЕЛОГО цвета оперенья”сзади” не заметил.

  8. Bette Wasik permalink
    October 2, 2011

    Kayaking on a lake in Montana today I saw my first large group of American Coots. I got quite close to them as they fed on the plant life in the shallow cove. Unfortunately, I didn’t see their feet. Wish I had, they are spectacular!

  9. carolyn permalink
    October 16, 2011

    thanks for this great article! I stumbled upon a huge flock of these birds for the first time today in a public park I always go to, and took many pictures, came home and easily identified the American Coot when I read this.

  10. Barbara permalink
    December 19, 2011

    We have more coots than ever here this year. I am not sure why the population explosion but it looks just like the picture above with the coots and ducks mingling happily together.

  11. Johnson permalink
    December 26, 2011

    Coots are here! San Francisco salt water and Fremont fresh water. New Years 2012.

  12. Nicholas permalink
    January 8, 2012

    Randomly say one lone coot mixed in with a bunch of mallards this afternoon at Meyer Park in northwest Houston, TX.

  13. Sandy permalink
    January 20, 2012

    I recently spotted a coot in the Central Park Reservoir in NYC. Just one, with velvet black feathers. Thanks for helping solve the mystery of this fabulous bird’s identity!

  14. Mike Dominesey permalink
    January 26, 2012

    Thanks for the awesome article!!! I learned a lot about these beautiful little birds from you..

  15. Karen Lund permalink
    February 17, 2012

    I saw these birds on a vacation to South Carolina. They were on the Savannah River by Augusta, GA’s riverwalk. They were so beautiful and had such cool feet!!! Thanks for helping me find out what they were.

  16. J Long permalink
    February 24, 2012

    Does anyone know why Coots would bamd together in large, dense groups? More than 50 birds floating so close together that they’re actually touching. Two nights in a row we’ve witnessed this behavior – and no one has ever seen them do it before. It’s been very warm here (highs in the 80′s ), but other than that nothing unusual…

    A few will break off from the group if food is offered, but the majority stays in formation.

  17. Tracey Wyman permalink
    March 7, 2012

    We have a beautiful marsh area behind our home. My Golden Retriever and I have been observing a very large flock of beautiful American Coots. So glad I was able to learn about them on your website. I wonder if they will stay the entire year?

  18. K Lye permalink
    March 18, 2012

    What a charmingly written article. We truly appreciated it up here in Ontario where Spring has just arrived.

  19. Josh The Geek permalink
    March 22, 2012

    We had a group of five American Coots swimming in Lake Belle View in Belleville, WI this morning. I got three photos which with my phone which are not spectacular, but are clear enough to prove they are American Coots. I’ve never seen them in this area.

  20. ba brink permalink
    April 24, 2012

    Have 2 coots in our lake now. Did not know what they were until someone told me and then I googled them. Interesting

  21. ba brink permalink
    April 24, 2012

    Have 2 coots in our lake now. Did not know what they were until someone told me and then I googled them. Interesting article. I live in southern Indiana.

  22. Courtney permalink
    July 26, 2012

    I’ve seen this little guy multiple times when I cross the north branch of the Chicago River on my way to work. I’m glad I finally figured out what he was. Thanks!

  23. Narendra bhagwat permalink
    September 5, 2012

    Very smart bird. I used to see them in huge numbers at Seattle, WA.
    Interestingly, their babies are red colored when very young.

  24. Bob Kellogg permalink
    September 19, 2012

    I saw one this past saturday while feeding ducks and geese with our grandson. We were at a park along Belmont Harbor.

  25. Pauline Adams permalink
    October 30, 2012

    What is the migration pattern for coots?

    • cindy young permalink
      November 16, 2012

      I dont know the migration of the coot, but I saw three of them a few days ago at caters lake in anderson s.c.thanks.

  26. Grammy Ray permalink
    November 4, 2012

    We have a place on Cedar Creek Lake in Texas. This week we have hundreds of American Coots flying in. The swarm in formation. Then land in the shallow cove to feed. They take off together making waves and rustling sounds on the water as they take off and move on.

  27. December 2, 2012

    We live in North Texas and have a beautiful lake outside our independent senior living apartment. About 3 weeks ago must have been 80 or so land on this lake in the middle of town and they seem quite delighted to stay – I hope they do. They are noisy and seemingly cranky little rascals and as I read very territorial. It is in high 70′s here in early December. I hope they stay and breed as we have had such mild winters last couple of years. We have beautiful swans in our lake (3 pairs) and they all have babies. But after 4-7 weeks they all disappear. I guess from the turtles pulling them under.

  28. Carol werner permalink
    December 13, 2012

    Quite a few coots here at lakeside rv park in pahrump nv.

  29. terese permalink
    January 10, 2013

    When I first saw these cute, sweet little birds, I couldn’t figure out if they were a duck or a type of chicken from far away! But as they got closer to me I was sure that they were from the duck family. So after getting onto your wonderful site and seeing the beautiful pictures you posted, I realized that they are called a Coot! I told my husband to feed them some bread yesterday and to our wonderful surprise they returned this morning for more, about 50 of them! I actually heard their little peeps and knew when they arrived. We used to have ducks and also raised their babies so it was a pleasent surprise seeing them at our RV park in Lake Elsinore, Ca. Cute Coots! Not chickens or ducks! Thanks, Terese’

  30. Richard permalink
    January 16, 2013

    I saw maybe 20 today on the edge of a lake bathing in Orlando, FL. Cool looking critters, never seen them before. What a treat, I hope to see them again. Gotta love nature.

  31. Tes permalink
    January 28, 2013

    Enjoying my first Coot siting on the river’s edge here on the South River, Edgewater, Maryland.

  32. Jill permalink
    January 29, 2013

    I just saw some earlier at Rockland Lake, Congers NY. I swear they had black webbed feet, however. Is that possible?
    They are so cute!

  33. February 14, 2013

    I saw this coot in my front garden I have lots of birds in my garden I live in woodland with a lake at the back LOVELY

    • Jim permalink
      February 22, 2013

      Today 2/22/13, We saw our first ever American coot today in the crick that feeds our pond in Brecksville OH. What a beautiful bird. It was by itself and at first I thought it was a black duck.

  34. Polly permalink
    February 27, 2013

    Smokin sum dank kush out on da dock dis mornin den i luked 2 da left n ther it was… a real american COOT! N i wuz lyke whaatttttt… Nvr seen dis so i thot i luk it up!

  35. March 26, 2013


  36. Joy permalink
    April 8, 2013

    Thanks for the great information. My husband and I saw these in the channel between Lake Michigan and Muskegon Lake yesterday (4/7/13) and had no idea what they were. Always enjoy seeing new wildlife!

  37. R. Sacco permalink
    April 12, 2013

    I live on Lake Beulah in SE Wisconsin and just saw my first Coot swimming down by our dock. Your website had a beautiful picture of the great bird I was fortunate to see. it was all along, but will keep looking for more

  38. Brett Harper permalink
    April 14, 2013

    We usually get a couple of packs of these each spring in Ames, IA. They are really fun to watch, great to finally know what their name is! An American Coot, who would’ve thought! Thanks

  39. Lynnette and Bob McBride permalink
    April 19, 2013

    We live in West Bloomfield, MI on a canal that leads into Pine Lake. A pair of unusual looking ducks were swimming by our shoreline and we discovered that they are American Coots. This is the first time in 37 years we have seen American Coots. So how do we get them to get them to show us their feet?!

  40. Jeannette permalink
    April 27, 2013

    Great post! I have seen a lot of these lately and people around here have been calling them “mud ducks”. I will be sure to politely inform them that they are not ducks, but coots. Thank you.

    • Jeannette permalink
      April 27, 2013

      P.S. by “around here” I meant western Oregon.

  41. Mary permalink
    September 11, 2013

    I was walking in my local Los Angeles County, California park yesterday, and out in the pond I saw one, lone “black duck with a white bill”. I took a picture of it. Today when I was trying to figure out what it was, I stumbled upon this website. Thanks for letting me know it was an American Coot. I could definitely see the “bright red eye and dark reddish forehead knob” on it, and noticed its oddly-shaped, white bill.

  42. Melissa permalink
    October 27, 2013

    We are in NE Texas and have 2 small ponds on our place. Today we saw one lone Coot. Very pretty. We were wondering why we only have one and how long it might stay?

  43. Karen permalink
    November 8, 2013

    I’ve seen these at Twin Lakes in Wichita, KS and wondered what they were. It’s nice to finally know! Haven’t been able to get too close, because they swim away if you get close to them. Smaller than the mallards they swim with.

  44. Rich permalink
    November 10, 2013

    Looking out of my window this afternoon and there is a large group of Coots ( about 70 ) in the bay. This is the first time I’ve seen these birds in Keuka lake in the Finger Lakes of Western New York.

  45. stan permalink
    November 13, 2013

    Does anyone know how to properly prepare coot? I would assume to treat it as duck. Any recipes?

  46. Kat permalink
    November 13, 2013

    Have an American Coot swimming in our backyard pool today and has been there for over a hour now. Our pool motor has been broke so the pool is a little green (won’t last as the pool guy came by this morning and fixed it) so I guess this Coot thinks it is a pond right now.

  47. Amy permalink
    November 18, 2013

    Just saw a group of these lovelies swimming by my window in a rental cabin overlooking the Whitefish River in Whitefish, MT. Thanks for the quick id and interesting info.

  48. L. Marty permalink
    December 15, 2013

    Saw a group, maybe 10 of them, on the Galveston coast, on 71/2 street by the seawall in a small pond, mixing with mallard ducks. Neet.

  49. Joni Fritz permalink
    January 2, 2014

    Thought I must be crazy for saying what I was seeing in the Sedona, AZ wetlands was not a duck, but one of my daughters sent me this link and I think the birds are American Coots! How reassuring. Now I hope to see those beautiful feet! I haven’t confirmed it yet.

  50. shaun lindemenn permalink
    February 2, 2014

    I live in clearlake California we have a home on the east shore of the lake and three times a day I go down to our beach and feed the waterfowl I buy special food for them at walmart,as I was researching wild ducks and bread is bad for there health…I love the variety of birds that come and the little black coots are always the bravest ones…they come right to me now it took a couple of weeks to earn there trust. Also I have mallards and canadian geese ,blue harrons and one bald eagle…its always fun to watch them together,although they all split when the eagle comes..

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