What is That Black Duck with the White Bill?

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

Coots gliding about in a small lake, Salem Oregon
Initially I thought this was going to be a flock of geese

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. This is a coot.

Close up shot of single coot
Best close up shot I could get

What Do American Coots Look Like?

Initially I thought the birds in the water would be geese, or perhaps ducks. Snapping their picture then taking them home to investigate brought me some basic facts on this bird. The American coot is a member of the rail family, black head and body, red eyes and a white bill. 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.  You can see it on some of the pictures I have included here.

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

I found some great information as well as a journal relating the story of one particular coot.  It seems that they can become distracted, either by injury or by mating, and may not be able to migrate at all.  Generally an aggressive bird when fighting for territory, you can find them swimming in groups, 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.  I couldn’t find much information on the migration patterns.

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.