Pleistocene Coots (Fulica americana)

Coots are 1 of the most common aquatic birds across North America and probably have been for millions of years. They are so abundant I didn’t have to rip off any pictures of them from google for this week’s blog entry. Instead, I searched through my own photos and found 1 I took of coots in Gainesville, Florida 2 years ago. Fossil remains of coots dating to the Pleistocene and/or Pliocene have been excavated from sites in Florida, Tennessee, Colorado, Utah, California, Oregon, New Mexico, Mexico, and the Bahamas. Coots prefer to congregate in flocks in the middle of a pond or lake that is surrounded by marshy vegetation. This type of habitat keeps them safe from land predators. Coots are usually found in freshwater. Female coots lay 1 egg a day for 10 days during nesting season for a clutch of 10. Their rate of reproduction along with their habitat preference allows them to thrive wherever wetlands are available. They mate for life and males spend a long time courting, but copulation lasts just 2 seconds.

Flock of coots at a bird sanctuary in Gainesville, Florida. I took this photo 2 years ago.

Coots are in the Gruiformes order which includes cranes, limpkins, and rails. Though they often hang out with ducks, they are not closely related to them. Their closest relatives are rails and gallinules–all members of the Raillidae family. They feed upon algae, pondweeds, grass, bulbs, roots, insects, snails, and fish. They are slow clumsy flyers and often fall prey to eagles, great horned owls, alligators, and bobcats. 80% of some bald eagle diets are made up of coots. To start flying from water, they have to run across the surface for some time.

Duck hunters frequently bag lots of coots because they are easier to shoot than ducks. According to the late George Leonard Herter, author of The Bull Cook and Authentic Recipes and Practices, coot meat tastes like a mouthful of mud. He noted the only way he could make the flesh palatable was to grind it up and put it in chili. Cajuns reportedly know how to make coot taste good, and they use it in a dish called gumbo de pouldeau. They remove every bit of fat from the meat, then soak it in water or milk overnight. The birds can then be used as an ingredient in gumbo. I’ve also seen videos on youtube of hunters removing the fat and soaking the meat in water. After this preparation they fry the meat and say it tastes like beef steak.


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