Deep Waterfowling Thoughts: How Do Coots Migrate?

The Duck Blog

Deep Waterfowling Thoughts: How Do Coots Migrate?

Posted 2017-08-31T23:36:00Z

Science Provides Answers to This Mysterious Phenomenon

Coots usually flap and run clumsily across the water to get airborne, which leads many people to wonder how the birds migrate. Photo © Ryan S. Rubino/Shutterstock

Time in the duck blind lets us ponder life's vagaries.

How could God have created such an infinite and mind-boggling cosmos? Will my consciousness continue in some form after my body dies? And how the heck do coots migrate?

Come on, you've questioned that. Every waterfowler has. The American coot — Fulica americana, a gangly, awkward member of the rail family — is common on lakes and wetlands throughout much of North America, and folks frequently chuckle at the seemingly silly behavior of mud hens. Mostly, they laugh at the way coots must run and flap their wings across the water in clumsy attempts to get airborne, often seeming to quit or getting tripped up by waves. Yet season after season, coots somehow leave their northern breeding grounds to winter in southerly climes, and then make equally mystifying return journeys months later. And most waterfowl hunters have never witnessed this phenomenon. Instead, depending on their location, folks arrive at their favorite hunting grounds to find it almost devoid of or suddenly brimming with coots, as if the birds had somehow teleported to or from the area.

But how do they really travel? Scientists have provided solid answers. In his 21-volume work, Life Histories of North American Birds, published from 1919 to 1968, American ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent wrote this about coots:

The hardy coots not only arrive early in their northern homes, but they are loath to leave in the fall, lingering often until they are driven out by the freezing of lakes. They gather into immense flocks before leaving and hold noisy conclaves, as if discussing the propriety of departure. On the morning after such a caucus the lake is usually deserted, all having gone during the night. Sometimes they linger too long and may be seen crowded in a dense black mass, perhaps mingled with the hardier ducks, in some unfrozen water hole in the ice. The fall migration takes the coots to southern lakes and even to brackish estuaries near the coasts where they mingle with the ducks and are often shot as game.

A more contemporary authority, Dale D. Humburg, senior science adviser at Ducks Unlimited, wrote this about coot migrations on Have you ever wondered why you never see flocks of migrating coots? While it may seem like these water birds mysteriously appear out of thin air, coots migrate primarily at night and rest and feed in marshes during the day.

Those passages pretty much confirm everything I'd heard about coot migrations, including the strange timing, en-masse departure and nighttime travel patterns. The noisy conclaves part was new but not surprising. Diving ducks, for example, sometimes leave the water and circle in large, noisy tornadic circles before catching a friendly wind and migrating. I guess it makes sense that coots would exhibit similar behavior.

So, there it is — a life mystery explained in simple terms. Still, I wonder how long it will take before some enterprising young tech-head figures out how to attach a camera to a coot and record its migratory journey. That wouldn't be close to discovering what happens to our consciousness after death, but it might be awfully cool.

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