What Is That Black Duck With the White Beak?

The American coot looks like a black duck with a white beak, but it's actually a member of the rail family. Learn to identify these water birds.

american cootCourtesy Jennifer Cummings
American coot at Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge in western New York

Sometimes treasures happen when you aren’t even looking. While on a small lake hoping to capture some good photos of the geese flying south, I found a bird I knew nothing about in the water. It looks like a black duck with a white beak. This is an American coot.

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What Does an American Coot Look Like?

american coot black duck white beakBirds & Blooms
An American coot looks like a black duck with a white beak.

American coots are related to the rails. If you get a good look at this black water bird, notice the white chicken-like beak (bill) and frontal shield. They also have partially lobed toes, not webbed feet like ducks, and red eyes.

Initially you might have thought the American coot is a duck, or perhaps a goose. The most noticeable field mark for the black colored bird is the white bill, which is compressed vertically rather than horizontally like a duck. The American coot also has a black spot on the end of the bill.

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American Coot Range and Migration

309820606 1 Alexander Viduetsky Bnb Pc 2022Courtesy Alexander Viduetsky
Adult and juvenile American coots at Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve in Los Angeles County, California

Despite generally being an aggressive bird when fighting for territory, coots are often seen swimming together in large numbers. Hesitant to take flight, coots will often flap frantically as they scurry along the water’s surface.

Their breeding range covers most of the northern half of the United States. They then migrate to spend winter in the southern states or Central America.

In the Northwest and Southwest it is common to see the coot all year long. They may migrate short distances from inland to the coastal regions.

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What Foods Do American Coots Eat?

American coot (Fulica americana) in water eating fishSandy Scott/Getty Images
American coot eating a fish

They look graceful as they coast along in the water, and it is fun to watch them dive for food. The coot will use its head to propel itself forward, a back and forth movement, not quite bobbing, but that’s an apt description. They eat water plants and occasionally small fish or other vertebrates. On the shore, the American coot will eat grubs or bugs along with vegetation.

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What Does an American Coot Sound Like?

Bird songs courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Lori Vanover
Lori has 20 years of experience writing and editing home, garden, birding and lifestyle content for several publishers. As Birds & Blooms senior digital editor, she leads a team of writers and editors sharing birding tips and expert gardening advice. Since joining Trusted Media Brands 13 years ago, she has held roles in digital and print, editing magazines and books, curating special interest publications, managing social media accounts, creating digital content and newsletters, and working with the Field Editors—Birds & Blooms network of more than 50 backyard birders. Passionate about animals and nature, Lori has a Bachelor of Science degree in Agricultural and Environmental Communications from the University of Illinois. In 2023, she became certified as a Wisconsin Extension Master Gardener, and she is a member of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology and sits on the organization's Publications Advisory Committee. She frequently checks on her bird feeders while working from home and tests new varieties of perennials, herbs and vegetable plants in her ever-growing backyard gardens.