Let’s Root for the Coot

This feisty waterbird is very common. That’s part of the problem

Author Ken Brower's initial reaction to coots, as he began a year of study in a marshland, was to ignore them. Then he found out what he was missing.

Disregard of the coot is nearly universal, it seems. Entrenched in our language as a stupid fellow or a simpleton, and in phrases like "silly as a coot," the bird is actually a rail, a family characterized by big, lobed feet, short wings and a reluctance to fly. Unlike most rails, however, it has a chunky build and lacks that old rail specialty — an impossible elongation of self for squeezing effortlessly between contiguous reed stems and disappearing. Instead, the coot goes about life out in the open, similar to the marsh ducks, but with its unwebbed rail feet, the "old coot" labors along, head pumping foolishly — no doubt, from the effort required to swim weblessly.

Noting an inflation of coots in the marsh in Sonoma County, California, where he and photographer Michael Sewell studied and observed, Brower admits to an initial "distaste" for the bird. Then one day, he recalls, "with the spring sun behind me and a coot ahead, I caught the bird in profile in my ten-power field glasses. For the first time I realized the brilliance of the blood-red eye . . . . I began to rethink coots."

Brower's grudging admiration develops as he explores a long list of reasons for the creature's extraordinary success in nature — its powers of communication, its quick-tempered belligerence and territoriality, its adaptability and opportunism, its parenting skills ("by turns, good and bad") and its nest-designing capabilities. Illustrated handsomely by Sewell’s images, Brower's prose — "a bunch of coots riding at anchor has all the poetry and romance of a mothballed fleet of minesweepers" — while poking fun at the ungainly bird, will no doubt improve the coot's reputation.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.