If it looks like a duck, it might be a coot

Common waterfowl often serves as biological indicator

The Indiana DNR lists about 285 birds that either live here or pass through heading elsewhere.

One of those that hangs around swims like a duck and feeds like a duck but isn’t a duck. In fact, they are a closer relative to sandhill cranes and rails.

There are nine species of coots in the world. Ours is the American coot; these birds have dark bodies with white faces, get about 16 inches in length with a wing span of up to 25 inches. The others are white-winged, black, red-gartered, Andean, red-fronted, giant, horned and crested.

Unlike a duck, the coot does not have webbed feet; instead, each of its long toes has broad lobes of skin that help it kick through the water. It also helps it stay on top of the mud it might be walking on.

Coots will live anywhere there is fresh water, from swamps and marshes to suburban parks and sewage ponds. While eating mainly aquatic plants such as algae, duckweed, eelgrass, wild rice, sedges, cattails and so on, they will also consume insects, snails, tadpoles and salamanders. If eating on land it will sometimes eat leaves of elm and oak and will also eat grains.

Coots also will at times steal food from others and sometimes lay their eggs in the nests of other coots.

Coots are slow and meticulous when it comes to foraging for food. It will pluck at plants while walking, swimming, sticking its head just under the water or dive completely underwater.

During the winter, they will mix with other waterfowl but can also be found in groups that will number several thousand.

They build their nests on the water, with each nest attached to an upright stalk but floating on the water. The nest is a shallow basket about 12 inches wide with a ramp of up to 15 inches. The egg cup will be about 1 inch in depth and 6 inches in diameter.

The interior is lined with fine smooth material. The female will lay 8 to 12 eggs, sometimes twice a year. The eggs will hatch in about 25 days. The chicks are born covered in down and alert. They are ready to leave the nest within 6 hours after birth.

The American coot is very common and widespread and on no watch list. They are seldom hunted because most duck hunters consider them inedible.

They are sometimes used as a monitoring tool to judge the pollution from agricultural, industrial and nuclear facilities in the wet lands where they live.

In flight they are clumsy. In order to get airborne, they typically have to beat their wings while running for many yards across the water. It is something you must see to believe.

Joe Whitfield is a naturalist and gardener for the Greenfield Parks and Recreation Department. Send comments to dr-editorial@greenfieldreporter.com.