Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
THE AMERICAN COOT.
FULICA AMERICANA, Gmel.
From November until the middle of April the Coots are extremely numerous in
the southern parts of the Floridas, and the lower portions of Louisiana. At
that season they are seen in flocks of several hundreds, following their
avocations on all the secluded bayous, grassy lakes, and inlets, which are so
plentiful in those countries; but after the period above mentioned, none remain,
and therefore it is certain none can breed there, although such is asserted by
Mr. BARTRAM, who no doubt mistook the Common Gallinule for the Coot, that bird
breeding in those places in considerable numbers. During the month of
September, the Coot is also abundant on all the western waters, and its
appearance in those districts being so much earlier than in the Floridas, is a
sure indication of the inland course of its migrations. On the sea-coast, in
fact, it is comparatively rare.
Although the curious form of their feet, and the situation of their legs,
might induce one to suppose these birds incapable of moving on land with ease,
experience proves the contrary, for they not only walk with freedom, but can run
with great speed when necessary. They are accustomed to leave the water too,
and resort to open lands on the margins of streams and lakes, for the purpose of
feeding, both in the morning and in the evening. While ascending the
Mississippi, being about fifty miles above New Orleans, on the 21st of March,
1822, the weather cloudy, I had the pleasure of seeing about six or seven
hundred of these birds feeding on the grass of a savannah bordering the river.
I took them while at some distance for a great flock of Guinea Fowls. Their
movements were brisk, they often struck at each other in the manner of the
domestic fowl, and ran with surprising celerity. As I approached nearer, I
plainly saw them nibble the tender grass, in the same manner as poultry; and
having found a place of concealment behind a rise of the ground, I laid myself
flat, and observed their motions at leisure; but during twenty minutes spent in
that situation, I did not hear a single note from the flock. I fired among
them, and killed five, on which the rest, after running a few steps, all rose
and flew off with speed towards the river, mounted high in the air, came curving
over me, their legs hanging behind, their wings producing a constant whir, and
at length alighted on a narrow channel between the shore, where I was, and a
small island. Following them with caution, I got sufficiently near to some of
them to be able to see them leap from the water to seize the young leaves of the
willows that overhung the shores. While swimming, they moved with ease,
although not with much speed, and used a constantly repeated movement of the
head and neck, corresponding with that of the feet. Now, twenty or thirty of
them would close their ranks, and swim up the stream in a lengthened body, when
they would disperse, and pick up the floating substances, not one of them diving
all the time. On firing at a large group of them that had approached me, they
started off in various directions, patting the water with their feet, and
rushing with extended wings, for thirty or forty yards, but without actually
flying. After this, they made towards the brushy shores, and disappeared for
about a quarter of an hour. The rest of the birds, which were a few hundred
yards off, scarcely took notice of the report of the gun; and before I left the
place, they had returned to the shore, and walked into another savannah, where
they probably remained until night. The next morning not a single Coot could I
find while looking for them, for several miles along the river, and I concluded
that they had left the place, and continued their migratory journey northward,
this being about the beginning of the time of their general departure.
Whilst at General HERNANDEZ'S, in East Florida, I found the Coot abundant
in every ditch, bayou, or pond. This was in December 1831, and in the next
month I saw great flocks of them near the plantation of my friend JOHN BULOW,
Esq. Whilst on a visit to Spring Garden Springs, at the head of the St. John's
river, I observed them to be equally abundant along the grassy margins of the
lagoons and lakes. On my return from the upper parts of that river to St.
Augustine, on the 28th February, I saw large flocks of them already moving
northward. They had suddenly become shy, and would rise before our boat, at a
distance of a hundred yards or so, with apparently scarcely any difficulty, and
fly in loose flocks at a considerable height, half a mile or more at a time, and
without uttering a note. Indeed, the only sound I ever heard these birds utter,
is a rough guttural note, somewhat resembling cruck, cruck, which they use when
alarmed, or when chasing each other on the water in anger. I am doubtful
whether our Coot cackles and cries by night and by day, as has been reported; on
the other hand, I am pretty well assured that Gallinules and Rails of different
species have been confounded with the Coot in this respect.
I never saw this species dive for food, and the only fish that I ever found
in the many that I have opened, was very small minnows or fry, which I think
they catch along the shallow edges of the water. Indeed, unless when wounded,
our Coot feels great reluctance at immersing its body in the water; at all
events, it has not the quickness of any of the diving birds, and rarely escapes
the shot of a common flint gun while attempting to get away. When wounded it
dives to some distance, but as soon as it reaches the grass or reeds, it
contents itself with lying flat on the water, and thus swimming to the nearest
shore, on reaching which it at once run, off and hides in the first convenient
place. When undisturbed, it feeds both by day and by night, and as often on
land as on the water. Its food consists of seeds, grasses, small fishes, worms,
snails, and insects, and along with these it introduces into its stomach a good
quantity of rather coarse sand. The principal breeding places of this species
are yet unknown to me. At Charleston it was supposed that it breeds in the
neighbourhood of that city; but my friend BACHMAN while searching for their
nests at the proper season, saw that the Common Gallinule was in fact the bird
that had been taken for the Coot. My learned friend NUTTALL mentions that a
pair had bred in Fresh Pond near Boston, and that he there saw parents and
young. Some travelling lumberers assured me that the Coot breeds in numbers in
the lakes lying between Mars Hill in Maine and the St. Lawrence river; but I can
find no authentic accounts of its nest having been found in any part of the
United States, although some probably breed on the borders of our northern
In Louisiana, this species is named Poule d'Eau, which is also applied to
Rallus crepitans. In all other parts of the Union, it is known by the names of
Mud Hen and Coot. The appellation of "Flusterers" given to it by Mr. LAWSON in
his History of South Carolina, never came to my ear, during my visits to that
These birds are frequently caught in the nets placed across the bayous of
the lakes in the neighbourhood of New Orleans, for the purpose of catching
Blue-winged Teals and other Ducks. They come against them while flying, but if
the hunter is not extremely quick they make their escape by nimbly scrambling
up, using their bill and feet until they reach the outer part of the net, when
they drop into the water like so many terrapins. At times they congregate in
vast numbers, and swim so closely that a hunter in my employ, while on Lake
Barataria, killed eighty at a single shot. They are extremely abundant in the
New Orleans markets during the latter part of autumn and in winter, when the
negroes and the poorer classes purchase them to make "gombo." In preparing them
for cooking, they skin them like rabbits instead of plucking them.
Both old and young birds differ considerably in size and weight. The male,
from which I drew the figure in the plate, was procured at General HERNANDEZ's,
in East Florida, and was among the best of about thirty shot on one of my
COMMON COOT, Fulica atra, Wils. Amer. Orn. vol. ix. p. 61.
FULICA AMERICANA, Bonap. Syn. p. 338.
CINEREOUS COOT, Nutt. Man. vol. ii. p. 229.
AMERICAN COOT, Fulica Americana, Aud. Orn. Biog.,
vol. iii. p. 291; vol. v.p. 568.
Male, 13 10/12, 25.
From Texas to the northern parts of Maine. Exceedingly abundant in
Louisiana and the Floridas, during winter and spring, where some remain to
breed. The greater number breed in Maine and New Brunswick, as well as along
the great lakes. Rare in the Middle Atlantic districts. Columbia river.
Bill about the same length as the head, stout, straight, compressed, higher
than broad at the base. Upper mandible with the dorsal line straight and
slightly sloping, towards the end slightly arched and deflected, the ridge
flattish at the base, and continuous with an oblong soft tumid plate which
ascends on the forehead, the rest of the ridge convex; sides rapidly sloping,
edges overlapping, sharp, with a slight notch close to the obtuse tip. Nasal
groove wide, extending to two-thirds of the whole length of the mandible, filled
with a soft bare membrane; nostrils linear, medial, lateral, direct, pervious.
Lower mandible with the angle long, narrow, rounded, the dorsal line nearly
straight, the sides flattish, the edges sharp.
Head small, oblong, much compressed. Neck of moderate length, slender.
Body rather full, compressed. Feet of moderate length, strong; tibia bare a
short way above the joint; tarsus rather short, compressed, broader below,
anteriorly covered with broad scutella, laterally with angular scales, on the
outer side behind a row of scutelliform scales; hind toe short, slender; middle
toe longest, fourth longer than second; toes scutellate above, hind one with an
inferior lobe, second with two larger inner and two smaller outer rounded lobes;
third with three, fourth with four on each side; claws of moderate length,
slightly arched, much compressed, acute, the middle one with a thin inner edge.
Plumage very soft and blended, on the head and neck short. Wings short,
broad, rounded; primaries curved, second longest, third little shorter, first
rather longer than sixth, all broad and rounded; secondaries broad, rounded with
a minute tip, the inner elongated and tapering. Tail very short, much rounded,
of twelve weak rounded feathers; the upper and lower coverts nearly as long as
Bill greyish-white, with a dusky spot on each mandible towards the end;
frontal callosity white during life, brownish-red after death. Head and neck
greyish-black, the upper parts deep bluish-grey, with an olivaceous tinge on the
scapulars and inner secondaries. Quills greyish-brown, darker towards the tips;
the edge of the wings, outer margin of first quill, and tips of outer
secondaries, white. Tail brownish-black; lower tail-coverts white. The breast
and abdomen are light bluish-grey, the latter paler, the sides darker; the lower
surface of the wings of the same dull leaden tint.
Length to end of tail 13 10/12 inches, to end of wings 14 3/12, to end of
claws 18 3/4; extent of wings 25; wing from flexure 7 1/2; tail 2 3/4; bill
along the back 1 7/12, along the edge of lower mandible 1 2/12; bare part of
tibia 3/4; tarsus 2; middle toe 2 8/12, its claw (7 1/2)/12. Weight 1 lb.
In an adult male preserved in spirits, the roof of the mouth is narrow,
flattened, with two middle series of acute reversed papillae, and two lateral
elevated lines extending to the tip; the lower mandible deeply concave; the
edges of both sharp, and the tips narrow but obtuse. The width of the mouth is
1/2 inch. The tongue is fleshy, thick, 11 twelfths long, concave above, with
the tip narrowed, but rounded. The oesophagus,
Fig. 1 [a b c], is 8 inches long, of
the uniform width of 1/2 inch; the proventriculus 9 twelfths in breadth. The
stomach, [c d e], is a very large, extremely muscular, transversely elliptical,
oblique gizzard, 1 1/2 inches long, 2 inches in breadth; its lateral muscles
extremely developed, the right 10 twelfths, the left 1 inch in thickness; the
tendons radiated, and covering nearly the whole surface; the inferior and
superior muscles narrow and prominent. Its contents are sand and remains of
shell-fish. The epithelium forms two large grinding plates, of which the right
is concave, the left convex. The intestine, [e f g h i j], is long and very
wide; it first curves along the edge of the stomach to the distance of 4 1/4
inches, returns to the liver, runs along the right side to the extremity of the
abdomen, is convoluted in an elliptical form, with 12 folds. Its length is 4
feet 8 inches, its width from 1/2 inch to 3 1/2 twelfths, toward the rectum
enlarging to 1/2 inch, and so continuing to the end. The coeca are extremely
elongated, being 11 inches in length, for 2 inches at the commencement only 2
twelfths in width, afterwards 4 twelfths, and again contracting to 2 twelfths,
toward the end, which is obtuse; their distance from the extremity 4 inches.
There is no cloacal dilatation.
The extremely developed gizzard, with its large grinding surfaces, the very
long and wide intestine, and the extraordinarily large coeca, together with the
uniform undilated rectum, indicate the most direct proximity to the Gallinaceous
birds. The digestive organs, however, differ from those of the Rasores in one
essential respect, namely, in there being no crop, or dilatation of the
oesophagus. They are also very nearly allied to those of the Ducks, differing
only in having the coeca proportionally larger. The Anatinae in fact are in
some respects aquatic Gallinaceae.
The trachea is 6 1/4 inches long, from 4 1/2 twelfths to 2 twelfths in
breadth, flattened, with the rings feeble, until 1 inch from the lower
extremity, when it becomes laterally compressed, with the rings much narrower.
The number of these is 154. Bronchi very short, of 20 half rings, which are not
ossified as in the Grebes, but cartilaginous. The rings of the trachea are
narrowed in the middle, in front and behind, so as to be perfectly flexible
there, as well as on either side. The lateral muscles are moderate. There are
no inferior laryngeal muscles, excepting on each side a very thin slip going to
the last ring.
I found this species very abundant in Texas, in May, 1837. It breeds in
Maine and Massachusetts.