This male coot with a broken wing has been a permanent resident in the marina for at least seven years. He has the remarkable ability to recognize people who will feed him, and will follow me everywhere (as best he can). It took a while to realize this since coots paddle around very slowly, and can't get out of the water without help. This is not a "tame" bird, and can take care of himself. He always picks a safe place to sleep, and is terrified of the usual predators, and anyone with a fishing pole!
After he has been fed and made to feel comfortable, he climbs up on the boat to sit with me in the morning and survey his territory.
His name comes from the bird's use of his beak to explore and examine things, and his interface with people's fingers when fed. However, the beak is really rather feeble since he makes quite an effort to break up a small cracker to eat it. He can't eat anything much bigger than a pea, and this is quite a handicap when forced to compete with other birds for food. The beak seems sharp on the end, but actually has so much overbite that he can't pick up a small object from a flat surface without laying his head down on one side. When he is finished eating rolled oats, the side of his head will be covered with white dust from the crumbs. The sides of his beak must be sharp, since he can snip off blades of grass.
All birds shed and regrow their feathers every year. Coots molt in July. Beaky needs his wings to "hop up" onto the boat. With his new feathers, Beaky can get around much easier now. He is very clumsy walking on a flat surface, and prefers to stay over the water. Sometimes he appears to get stuck with one foot standing on the other. He has great difficulty going down steps, reaching as far as he can with one foot, and tumbling down a few inches onto his beak. Now that I understand this, I let him walk around until he is over water to safely jump down. While molting, coots are relatively helpless, afraid of any disturbance, and hesitate to come out of the water to eat.
Coots appear thoughtful and cautious in their actions, and it's usually obvious what he is thinking. It's important to be patient, and not try to hurry him along.
He can't get out of the water without this step on the boat. Even steps are difficult; coot nests are usually made with a ramp leading to the water. Fresh drinking water is critical to all birds. The only reason birds are here is because fresh water is available from the storm drains when the lawns and shrubbery is watered. It took a couple of weeks to train the coot to drink from a cup. The only way to do this is to depend on the coot's own curiosity and foraging behavior. Now the coot will see any shape or color cup as a source of water. He once tried to stick his beak in my boat (travel) coffee mug, but was thwarted by the plastic cap inside.
After a coot is fed and made comfortable, he will often turn his back to me and watch for enemies and predators. This is instinctive in coots, and they will flock together with almost any other species to put more eyes up looking for danger. This bird has a somewhat relaxed personality, but is always alert. He seems to use both his peripheral vision (to look at casual objects) and binocular vision (to look at something important). Coots don't have much facial expression, but body language always tells me when a dog, cat, hawk, or other danger is nearby. If something is bothering him, he points his beak directly at it.
The one thing the coot most fears is the occasional sea lion or harbor seal that strays into the marina basin. Safety for a coot means jumping in the water, but when the threat is in the water, the coot can go into a real panic. He crouches down on the boat and makes himself as small as possible, holds still, and keeps his eyes open until the seal is gone. He was literally shaking in fear when this picture was taken.
I have watched the large pupils in the coot's eyes carefully, and
can see that eyeball movement is very restricted compared to our eyes.
Perhaps the coot uses his head
bobbing movement to emulate the
quick darting movement of human eyes. The coots have poor night vision
when they come to the boat for food
before sunrise. It seems their greatest difficulty is in seeing things
and they often fumble and peck around to find food held out to them.
It's not unusual for the coot to sit down flat on his belly. At times, he may seem reluctant to move around very much. Coots prefer to eat small amounts of food every hour or so. He will almost always eat more if food is offered by hand, but may not want to stand up and get it himself. The coot has a long flexible neck and can grasp the food dish with his beak to move it closer or turn it around.
Nine out of ten wild coots can be tamed, and trained to recognize you, and take food from your hand. It is easier when you have a small number of them and see them every day. Start with very small amounts of food and kneel down to put your face closer to them. Sometimes this takes some patience. When one of the birds understands this, usually they will all follow. There may be one individual that remains aloof, but they will all learn to recognize you.
When the birds learn that you are no danger to them, you can "flock" together with them and observe their behavior and interaction. Coots have the remarkable tendency to join with other species for security and will extend this to humans.
Some coots may allow you to touch them, but I believe they are simply waiting patiently to be fed. A few coots return to the marina on the fall migration, and remember me from the previous year. Missy Coot (above) was Beaky's winter companion for two years. The Number 2 Male (below) was a quiet and patient coot that liked to stand close to my foot on the sidewalk. He was here two winters.
Monday Coot (above) arrived in the darkness on Monday morning September 29, 2008. She seemed as if she had been someone's pet since she was tame as a puppy, and understood perfectly how to use the food dish and water cup.
She allowed me to pick her up and pet her a few times. However, she didn't like it, and after a while wouldn't allow me to catch her So she must be a perfectly wild coot, but with no instinctive fear of people.
She left on spring migration Monday night, March 30, 2009.