The Eurasian Coot Fulica atra is one of the persistently most common waterfowl in the Goulburn Wetlands. As its name suggests this species is found over a very wide range, from the sub-Antarctic islands through New Zealand, all of Australia except the driest deserts, and the western Pacific, Indonesia, Asia, Europe and northern Africa.
It is a plain dark grey bantam-sized bird with a black head, red eyes and a pure white beak and frontal shield. It is this frontal shield that is responsible for the saying “as bald as a coot”. Remember that only in recent decades has bald meant ‘hairless’. Its original meaning was ‘white-headed’, which incidentally is why a Hereford crossed with an Aberdeen Angus produces that breed of cow known as a Black Baldy. In theory then, any white-headed person is bald, while the hairless ones are merely follicularly challenged or patterned.
Coots belong to the widespread group of birds called rails, and to the sub-group called gallinules (the hen-like rails). Two other common gallinules near Goulburn include the moorhen (it is blackish and has a thin red and yellow beak with a red shield) and the swamphen (it is purple-blue and has a stout pure red beak and shield). Unlike the other two which have white under or near their tails, coots have a plain black bottom. Coots are the most aquatic of the gallinules: they often swim across deep water, while moorhens prefer to edge around and near the shore and swamphens like the reedbeds and dry land. Coots are often very aggressive towards each other but generally appear to ignore or get on with other species of waterfowl. In the Goulburn Wetlands we have often observed a coot and a moorhen who appear to be best buddies, following each other around, feeding near each other and generally appearing to enjoy each others company. They would even occasionally be seen to be nibbling on either end of the same piece of ribbonweed.
The coot is the most vegetarian of the gallinules and eats a large variety of water plants but will also come ashore to feed on grasses. Instead of webs it has evolved lobed feet which help it swim. Unlike ducks, which upend with their heads down and tails up, or grebes, that silently submerge and swim around, coots dive by first launching themselves skywards with their feet then abruptly plunging down to gather submerged plants. As the frosts appear and the water ribbons disappear, coots become more dependent on submerged plants such as Potamogetons and sometimes on the larger knotweeds or water peppers. These, when partially submerged, they will prune into low hedges, taking them from being half a metre or so above the water to a centimetre or two above the surface. It is this lack of dependence on water insects or frost tender emergent water plants that ensures the numerical dominance of coots in the wetlands. Their numbers only decrease as the wetlands dry out, and even then they can keep up if there’s green grass somewhere nearby. Occasionally coots will form large flocks, sometime of thousands of birds, that feed together on larger lakes. At these times they draw the attention of sea eagles which readily dive into the great black barges of birds to pluck out their prey.
Like other gallinules, coots nest among reeds and other water plants often on islands, near or actually in water. Sometimes they nest communally. The eggs are pale grey with lightly scattered dark dots. These hatch into fuzzy black chicks with red heads (much like other gallinules) that stick close by their caring parents.
Coots prefer to swim off when disturbed, but if suddenly surprised will skitter across the top of the water with their legs on or just above the surface, before folding their wings and gliding back into the water further away. When actually flying they hold their legs out behind them. Coots frequently travel en masse overnight, so can appear or disappear in places unnoticed by humans.