September has arrived, and at this northern latitude both people and wildlife already are starting to prepare for winter. On the human side, wood is being split and piled, honey is being collected and storage areas are being organized and rearranged. On the wild side, bears and deer are fattening up on apples and birds are on the move. I can already hear the Canada geese honking as they gather up in groups again. This is the time of year we start to see all kinds of waterfowl on our waterways that are only here in the spring and fall, including some rarities. And along with the rarities come some very common returnees that signal the change of seasons.
One of my favorite harbingers of autumn is the ubiquitous American coot. If you live anywhere near a body of water, you've probably seen these odd-looking waterfowl gathered together in large groups starting in September. At a distance they resemble ducks; in fact, they tend to assemble with groups of ducks so it can be hard to tell them apart at first. But once you get closer you can tell that coots are a completely different category of bird. They're common enough that even casual birders can easily identify them. While they are shorebirds, they resemble chickens more than ducks and are more closely related to sandhill cranes than they are to most of the swimming birds they hang out with. They don't have webbed feet and instead use their long, lobed toes to push themselves through the water. These peculiar feet also help support them when they're walking around mucky ground. Coots are clumsy flyers. They need a lot of water to get airborne and this isn't a graceful process like it is for loons or trumpeter swans. The feature that makes them stand out from their duck friends when they're in the water is their short, sloping bill. American coots do resemble their gallinule relatives, who they associate with during the colder months. You can tell them apart by the gallinule's red beak — coots have a white bill with a black ring around the end.
American coots rarely breed along the South Shore, but readers farther south may seem them raising families in local waterways. They need lots of emergent aquatic vegetation so they prefer ponds and marshy areas. Coots are a good species for urban birdwatchers since they're drawn to retention ponds and office parks and they'll even nest in these areas as long as there's some standing water mixed in the vegetation. American coots build floating nests on stilts: the nest is usually anchored to stalks of dead plants such as cattails and reeds. They're prolific breeders, with up to 12 eggs per clutch and two broods per year. Sometimes they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds including gulls and teal. A big raft of coots will eat literally tons of plant matter every season, but they aren't strict vegans. They also eat insects, snails and even vertebrates like salamanders and tadpoles. They gather by the thousands in winter and while they're happy to steal food from other species, they aren't territorial and will hang out with whoever else is occupying open water.
One of the reasons American coots are so common is that they apparently taste nasty (I've never tried them myself). Some hunters shoot them for sport, which doesn't seem to be hurting their numbers even though hundreds of thousands are harvested every year. Since coots are wetland residents, they tend to accumulate toxins from pollutants including farm runoff and nuclear waste. Because there are so many of them, scientists often monitor the levels of toxins in coots as a measure of how much pollution is in the environment in general. Keep an eye out for these fowl as they start to gather up with a few thousand of their friends this month. And the next time someone calls you an "old coot", take it as a compliment.