Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Coot Wars

Western Oregon’s winter wetness has settled in. Time to finally finish my series of Yellowstone posts I started in June. This one took place in mid May.

Coot are funny black birds often seen swimming about on a local pond. It always seems strange to me that they are a rail. Most rails are extremely secretive about their private lives. Just seeing one is noteworthy. But coot hang out in the open and are often dismissed as being ‘just a coot.’ I’ve learned to pay attention to these very plain dark birds.

Yellowstone National Park: One edge of Floating Island Pond is still in morning shadow and frost. Most of the pond is flooded with morning sunshine. A sandhill crane incubates on a small island in the middle of the pond. Its back is dark – still wet from the frost that has just melted. Dale and I have parked and wait, hoping to photograph the crane’s mate when it flies in to exchange places on the nest. The ruddy ducks are lazy this morning. Three sleep in the fringe of broken off bulrushes near the crane’s nest.

Lots of mellow sounds: chuckles from the coot, chucks and an occasional “Kleeee-e-e” from a red-winged blackbird. A pair of Canada geese are noisy as they fly in. I’m sitting on an embankment above the pond. Below me I hear water splashing. It a pair of coot copulating. They are standing on a half submerged platform of bulrushes. Once done, one rouses and preens while the other swims off. There are five coot on the pond. We haven’t figured out if it is possible to tell males from females.

Here comes a coot back, swimming towards me. It hurries up the journey by walking/flying a third of the way. Once it settles back into the water I see it is dragging a section of bulrush, bringing it right to where the copulation took place. The coot pulls the bulrush onto the slight platform of bulrushes and proceeds to pound it into the mat. Its long green toes slap at the soggy stem and stir up a spray of water. Satisfied with its job, the coot swims off again.

The crane finally stands and rolls her eggs. We learned to tell the cranes apart about five years ago. When they ‘unison bugle’ the male’s bill points to the sky and calls a little more slowly. The female doesn’t point as high and her call is faster. This female has a broken toe. Whenever we see the left foot we know which crane we are watching. Papa crane is slow in trading places this morning. He finally flies to the nest at 9:05. He bows upon arrival, but doesn’t bugle. The female flies off within a minute. It usually is hours before she returns. He’ll stay at the nest until she does.

Having five coot on the pond seems to be causing some concern between the coot. Bicker. Bicker. Bicker. Coot heads are black and the rest of their body is charcoal grey, that is all except their bright white under-tail coverts. When they bicker they hold their wings up just a little and their stubby tail up a lot, flashing their white under-tail coverts. When they chase and turn and can’t help but think of a bunch of nuns running about catching chickens or something. They always make me laugh.

Suddenly our peaceful scene erupts. Mad splashing. Water flies. Two coot are having a battle royal. Both seem to be trying to plant their feet on the breast of the other and push the opponent underwater. A third coot quickly joins the fracas. Lots of squabbling. The battle is intense, but brief. Back to their busy ways. I can’t help but think this indicates we have three males and two hens …. And someone is going to get the short straw.


  1. I enjoyed this tale of the coots and your sketches brought the scene alive. I hope you and yours has a great thanksgiving.

  2. Ahh, at last more Yellowstone! Enjoy all of your encounters, but know how much time you have spent at Yellowstone. It gives me pleasure to know we have so much more to come from you!
    Thanks for sharing your time, talents, and knowledge, Elva!

  3. Elva, I've been looking forward to another Yellowstone post, so this is a Thanksgiving treat. I've been called an "Old Coot" on more than one occasion. I wonder if that was just my age or some behavior on my part?? Hope you & Dale have a very HAPPY THANKSGIVING.


  4. I love those coots! Your lively drawings and descriptive words bring the story to vivid life. I feel like I was right there. :)

  5. I enjoyed your coot story, Elva, and love the sketches that accompany it. Coots have arrived at Lake Ralphine for the winter and I've begun to sketch them, so it was a timely story, for me, even though it took place earlier this year.