What is That Black Duck with the White Bill?

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

Sometimes treasures happen when you aren’t even looking. I drove out to a small private lake hoping to capture some good photos of the geese flying south. While I did get some great shots of the geese in flight, 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.

american coot black duck white beakBirds & Blooms

What Do American Coots Look Like?

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 I thought the coots in the water would be ducks, or perhaps geese. For me the most noticeable distinction for the coot is the white bill, which is compressed vertically rather than horizontally like a duck.  The American coot has a black spot on the end of the bill.

Notice the white bill on each bird
Shot of two of the coots

I found some great information while researching this bird. It seems that they can become distracted, either by injury or by mating, and may not be able to migrate at all. Despite generally being an aggressive bird when fighting for territory, coots are often seen swimming together in large numbers, which was the case for me. In the Northwest it is common to see the coot all year long; migration patterns may just be from inland to the coastal regions. Hesitant to take flight, coots will often flap frantically as they scurry along the water’s surface.

Another shot of part of the flock
Another shot of part of the group

What Do American Coots Eat?

I found them graceful as they coasted along in the water, and it was 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, occasionally small fish; on the shore the coot will eat grubs or bugs along with their vegetation.  They have also been know to eat the eggs of other birds.