Readers’ wildlife photos (and a video)

Bruce Lyon, a biologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, always has wonderful bird photos and natural history tidbits based on his work. Today we have A Tale of Coots or Coot Fight Club. We even have one video! Bruce’s words are indented:

I have studied American coots (Fulica americana) on and off over the past three decades in central British Columbia, Canada and thought I would share some photos and biology. Coots look a bit like ducks but they are actually rails. Dirt common (in western North America) and even considered pests (e.g., when hundreds live on a golf course and poop all over the greens), coots are the Rodney Dangerfields of the bird world—like the comedian, they don’t get no respect! Their name is even an insult. Reputation aside, coots are really interesting in terms of their family life and reproductive tactics.

Below: An American coot swimming on its territory. Note the demonic red eye. A couple of other unrelated groups of diving birds have red eyes (loons, many grebes)—I have no idea if this signifies something interesting.

Below: Ideal coot breeding habitat: one of several wetlands where I studied coots near Williams Lake and Riske Creek BC. Coots need bulrushes (reeds) for nesting cover but happily use the dead stems from the previous year, like the ones shown here, so they do not have to delay nesting to wait for new growth. These wetlands have extremely high densities of coots—ten times higher than predicted for a bird of this body size, based on a comparative study of territory size for birds generally.

Below: Coots are fiercely territorial and have ferocious fights with each other. Interestingly, most fights involve immediate neighbors rather than territorial birds trying to keep birds without territories from usurping their territory. Coots apparently forgot to read the textbooks and do not heed the ‘dear enemy effect’, whereby two neighboring territorial animals become less aggressive to each other once territorial borders are well-established. These fights are frequent and occur throughout the breeding season. With all of these fights it’s kind of like watching a hockey game.

Below: The fights are serious and not just ritualized displays—coot talons are large and very sharp and their strong legs result in kicks with a punch. Check out the talons on the birds below. Fights to the death have been reported in the literature. I have never seen a lethal fight but saw a few fights where I thought one bird might drown another. We sometimes find blood on eggs when we check nests and suspect that birds have returned from a fight and bled on the eggs when they incubate. The first time I removed a coot from one of my traps I made the mistake of using my bare hands and paid for this dearly with very badly raked hands.

Below: Both members of the pair fight and it seems that males mostly fight males, and females fight females. Sometimes the whole family gets involved. I recall a memorable scene where the four adults from two adjacent territories were fighting while the kids from the two families sat on the sidelines peeping away (which I anthropomorphically interpreted as cheering their parents on).

Below: When coots are done fighting, they almost always have a little peace ceremony that seems to signal that the fighting is over for the time being. Hockey has its face-offs—coots have their ass-offs™ (not the official name but ‘paired display’ seems boring). [JAC: LOL!] In the display the birds show each other their rear ends, which are adorned with two distinctive white patches (white flags?) and they raise their wings up as well, perhaps to accentuate the white patches. These displays were really helpful for our study because they occur precisely at the territory border—in the photo below the territory border threads the two pairs. The displays allow us to mark the territory borders (with flagging tape on nearest reeds) and later estimate territory size. Most territories hug the shoreline and we measured territory size as the length of shoreline defended. Of all the numerous things we measured about the birds, territory size is the only measure that reliably correlates with reproductive success—the bigger the territory, the more kids produced. This makes sense because the families get all of their food from their territories and bigger territories means more food. This pattern may also explain why coots fight so much—they are fighting to maintain their territory size and ultimately maximize their reproductive success.

Below: A video clip showing the display at the end of a fight (I missed the fight itself). The display often involves a fair amount of pirouetting—repeated spinning around to display the butt and then turning away. The particularly interaction in the video involved two pairs that had their broods close to the territory border. Note the chick begging while its parent interacts with its neighbor.

Below: A coot with a neck collar engraved with a unique number for identifying this individual bird—meet Lucky the coot. I needed to be able to follow known individuals and since coot legs are mostly hidden in the water because they swim so much colored leg bands were not an option so I went with collars. I trapped birds at their nests at night to measure them and attach their collars.

I made the collars myself and I believe I am the only person who ever used them on coots (they are normally used on waterfowl). Therefore, when I walked into the Sacramento Wildlife Refuge in California a few years ago and saw a stuffed coot with a yellow neck collar sitting on the refuge biologist’s desk I instantly recognized one of ‘my’ birds. I had banded the bird in BC and after the breeding season it migrated to the Central Valley of California where it was promptly shot, stuffed and given as a gift to the refuge biologist. Not the happy animal reunion one is used to in the movies. I guess that coot should be named Unlucky.

Below: We use floating blinds resembling muskrat houses to observe coot families. A plywood disk (table) attached to a truck inner tube forms the base, PVC piping makes a dome frame that is covered with a camo fabric cover and then the entire contraption is covered with dried marsh-like vegetation (Cabelas sells panels of dried vegetation for duck hunters to make blinds). We sit on a seat in the blind and sometimes spend 8-10 hours a day sitting in the blinds making observations. The blinds work well and we are sometimes just a few feet from a coot family. In fact, the camouflage is so good that a bald eagle once perched on a blind with a person inside. The blinds are also great for photography and I am often able to get close to various nice marsh birds (a future posting!). The blinds are also great for the occasional practical joke. A cyclist drove by one of wetlands and stopped and stared at the blind I was in. I rocked the blind back and forth and his eyes just about popped out of his head. I repeated the rocking several times and he looked increasingly puzzled and eventually rode off. Perhaps he thought the muskrats were going crazy inside the house.

Below: A typical coot nest hidden in the reeds. Coot nests typically have a ramp down to the water, shown here coming off the front of the nest. The ramps make it easier for the birds to walk up to the nest.


Below: Coot chick are cute and fluffy at hatch. They leave the nest within a day of hatching and follow their parents around the territory while the parents forage. We give each chick a ‘nape tag’ with a unique color combination that allows us to tell the chicks within the brood apart. Nape tags consist of colored beads on a tiny safety pin that is attached to a tiny flap of skin on the back of neck. When we attach the tags the chicks show no signs of distress and there is never any blood so we do not have concerns about the tags harming the chicks.

Below: Coot chicks are fed by their parents: here a parent offers an aquatic insect to its chick. Parental food is essential for the first ten days of life—without it, a chick will perish. The chicks are fed mostly aquatic insect larvae—damselflies, dragonflies and caddisflies, which have to be shaken out of their protective houses before they can be fed to the chick. Note the extraordinary appearance of this newly hatched chick—orange plumes, modified facial plumes that look like beads of wax, blue eyebrows that reflect mostly in the ultraviolet wavelengths, and a bald top of the head (pate) that can change color fairly quickly. Much more to follow on these colors in a later post.

Below: A parent goes below to look for food while its chicks bob on the surface. I suspect that the reason the chicks do not feed themselves is that they are too buoyant to swim under water to search for the food, and they may also lack the experience. When the chicks get a bit older they start to feed themselves by pecking small bits of food off the surface and reeds.

TO BE CONTINUED…… 

18 Comments

  1. Posted June 27, 2017 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    Spellbinding! Love this kind of detailed work. Thanks!

  2. Posted June 27, 2017 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    Absolutely first rate. The pictures and the commentary.

  3. Posted June 27, 2017 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    Great photos, vid, and stories! Thanks Bruce! 🙂

  4. Debbie Coplan
    Posted June 27, 2017 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    Really fantastic and fascinating. I loved seeing the observation huts too. Thank you!

  5. Hempenstein
    Posted June 27, 2017 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    Excellent! Never would have suspected they didn’t have webbed feet, for starts. Thanks, Bruce!

    Do you re-capture the chicks to remove their tags later, do they decompose, or?

    • Bruce Lyon
      Posted June 27, 2017 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      Sometimes the chicks shed them but otherwise there are permanent. They seem large on a chick but on a full grown chick they seem pretty modest.

  6. Lee Beringsmith
    Posted June 27, 2017 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    I live in the Sacramento Valley and like you find these birds fascinating. Your remark about them being the Rodney Dangerfield of the bird world is spot on. Have always been fascinated how non-webbed foot animal could be so successful in an aquatic environment. Any thoughts on this?
    Looking forward to the next installment.

  7. Michael Fisher
    Posted June 27, 2017 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Great post. I’m looking forward to more!

    I read that that coot parents are ruthlessly Darwinian with their brood – concentrating the feeding on those chicks that are progressing the most & even killing the weaker ones. Is that a correct description & have you seen that behaviour?

    I’m [like others here] interested in the un-webbed feet. I took a look around the ‘net & coots have lobes on each toe – one lobe per joint, resembling mini-snowshoes. They have lovely, intricate & humorous feet!:- https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Coot_feet.jpg

    I assume these lobes are specialised scales, that can open up to increase area.

    REASONS FOR LOBES [my guesses]
    ** Superior to webs for walking across mud – less suction to overcome
    ** A lobe per toe joint means toes can be flexed independently. Better for fighting – not going to rip like a web might

    • Bruce Lyon
      Posted June 27, 2017 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      The ruthless culling of the brood will be the topic of the next post. The lobes are not scales but fleshy projections. Lobes seem pretty good for swimming since grebes also have lobed feed (and do almost no walking so it is not as if the lobed feet are better for some things). It may just be that evolving webbed feet may not always be possible and lobed feed to a fine job. But interesting point to think about costs and benefits of webs vs lobes!

  8. rickflick
    Posted June 27, 2017 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Fascinating creature. I’ve seen them while birding for years but did not know much about them. I, too, am looking forward to more info.

  9. Posted June 27, 2017 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    I grew up with the “don’t get no respect” attitude. My dad was an avid birder and always checked for ducks when we drove past a small lake near our home. Most often it was “Awe, it’s just a coot.”

  10. Posted June 27, 2017 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Fantastic photos and information! I had no idea coots were such avid fighters. I am really looking forward to future installments.

  11. rickmcwilliams
    Posted June 27, 2017 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Coots are interesting birds. They are reasonable fliers. They make water landings on their chests. There is a bit more splash than the duck ski landing. I have seen one make a feet up landing on land. Everything was fine until touchdon. Then the coot tumbled and rolled, stirring up dust. It stood up, shook its wings, shook its head and pretended the incident never happened. Those of us who were pilots had thought that gear up landings only happened to humans flying airplanes.

  12. rickmcwilliams
    Posted June 27, 2017 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Coots are interesting birds. They are reasonable fliers. They make water landings on their chests. There is a bit more splash than the duck ski landing. I have seen one make a feet up landing on land. Everything was fine until touchdon. Then the coot tumbled and rolled, stirring up dust. It stood up, shook its wings, shook its head and pretended the incident never happened. Those of us who were pilots had thought that gear up landings only happened to humans flying airplanes.

  13. Diane G.
    Posted June 28, 2017 at 1:23 am | Permalink

    Just as Lou said–spellbinding! I enjoyed double-clicking on each and every picture and savored every word. (And loved the humor. 😀 )

    Around here–southwest Michigan–most if not all of the coot feet I see are off-white in color (like your collared individual # 7); I was surprised at the dark and metallic green tones of the Canadian birds. Is this some kind of environmental phenomenon? (Of course, I don’t see a lot of coot feet…a lot of coots, yes, but usually paddling along…)

    Can’t wait for the next installment! 🙂

  14. Posted June 28, 2017 at 1:50 am | Permalink

    Really enjoyed the post and narrative freekin cool birds, mad as….

  15. Posted June 28, 2017 at 2:58 am | Permalink

    Thank for this post. The Lyon lab does great work. The photos are spectacular. Looking forward to a parental choice post!

  16. Karen Bartelt
    Posted June 30, 2017 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    What an interesting story. Thanks.


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