It is hard to admit that I wasn’t really paying attention. We were at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park in Nevada and the scenery behind the Interpreter, yellow Fremont Cottonwoods backed by a layer cake slice of mountain slope, was stealing the show. He was explaining all about the varied geology of the region, including the ancient limestone bluffs before us, but my attention was drawn to a clear green pond which reflected this glorious vista. Specifically, I was drawn to the coots swimming upon it. As a professional interpreter myself, I was torn between courtesy and curiosity. Fortunately this was a sizable group and I was able to wander off without much notice (I was performing the A.D.D. role in this particular assemblage).
American Coots are not an unusual sight for me, so it would seem a terrible shame to suddenly be drawn to them in this situation. We have thousands of them in the cold waters of the Detroit River back home. In fact, given the huge watery expanses of my native Great Lakes it is a wonder that I would be all that fascinated by a little artificial spring-fed pond in the desert. This pond, dubbed Lake Harriet by the rancher who created it in 1948, happens to hold one of the last surviving populations of the highly endangered, and wonderfully named, Pahrump Killifish. However, since these peanut-sized residents were submerged and unseen, the coots provided the main show. There were about a dozen of these chunky black waterfowl milling about. Better yet, our human presence posed no barrier to their natural behavior and they were fearlessly going about their daily routine as if we were nothing more than a herd of two-legged horses (or asses?). The opportunity to observe any animal “au natural”, no matter how common, is always worthy of time.
Coots are a gregarious species but this does not mean they are amiable. They are, as a matter of fact, quite the opposite. They are constantly arguing, posturing, slap-fighting, and cackling in order to maintain balance between the crazy coots and old coots (etc., etc.). Calling upon a repertoire of some 14 different posture displays, they can convey a whole host of cooty emotions. These Lake Harriet coots were exhibiting at least five of these textbook behavior patterns – three of which I’ll describe.
Although I saw the behaviors first, it wasn’t until afterward that I was able to attach some definitive meanings on them. Credit for that definition goes to Gordon Gullion who wrote the definitive paper on coot displays in 1952. Fittingly, Gullion was with the Nevada State Fish and Game Commission at the time he conducted his study so it is, after-all, appropriate to discuss coot ways while in Nevada.
Two of the more subtle and fascinating displays are called “Charging” and the “Paired display.” A charging coot is actually more of a slinking coot. With head held down at water level and the body profile reduced to a minimum, a charging coot silently advances on an opponent (see drawing below). One of the birds I watched, and the one which I used as a model for my drawing, swept his head back and forth like a mine sweeper. In this case, the bird made ultimate use of its flashy white beak and frontal shield to signal “go away, you are bothering me.” Coots are big into facial recognition which is why they present this part of their anatomy first. This usually precedes “spattering” in which the bird quickly picks up speed and begins to run across the water to chase away the bothersome fellow coot.
Far and away the most unusual display is the “Paired display.” Head lowered, neck feathers ruffled, the birds raise their wing coverts as high as they will go and stick their rumps high in the air to display their white tail feathers (see drawing below). It is, as the name implies, usually conducted by a pair of birds trying to intimidate each other. In this case, it is the butt that does the speaking (see “end” photo). They maneuver in such a way as to present their tails to each other as if to say “See this? This is the rump of power.”
One side of a “Paired Display”
Both of the above actions usually led to a direct fight in which two birds went at each other chest to chest like tiny game cocks. They used their huge lobed feet to slap away and scratch at their opponent while cackling at top volume. One usually attempts to grab and hold the other down until he/she either flees or drowns! Fortunately all the fights I witnessed were short-lived and ended non-fatally. I hate to say it, but this act reminded me of two old ladies fighting over the last bag of discounted Christmas candy at Walmart.
Of all the coot postures and actions I was witness to, I found the tail-up pair display to be the most visually satisfying. This was a graceful – almost swan-like – act that, up until my Lake Harriet encounter, I would normally have called very uncoot-like. Now, I know that there is more to a coot than meets the eyes (and that A.D.D. can have its benefits).
The “Paired Display” viewed as it was intended