Coots are generally thought to be omnivorous, but that is not the case with any specific individual coot. As wild animals, coots will want to eat whatever they are familiar with. They are very suspicious of foods that they don't recognize. Fortunately, most wild birds will like the Cheez-It crackers, which will form a starting point in trying other foods. I believe that flocks of coots that forage together share the same skills, and taste for food. If you can train one coot in a group of coots to eat something, it is more likely the others will try it too. It is important to understand that every coot is an individual, and each one may have greatly different preferences in food.
In 2004, I started growing meal worms as a diet supplement for the coot. Most birds and reptiles like the worms. Worms are grown in oat or wheat bran with a slice of apple or other fruit thrown in for moisture. After four weeks, my worms changed to cocoons and hatched out into beetles that breed and lay eggs. When the beetles are done laying eggs, they are supposed to die. By the middle of February, dozens of pin size worms have hatched. I start transferring these worms to another enclosure (as soon as I can see them) to prevent cannibalism.
In July 2005, I have become tired of the worms that seem to be growing smaller, eating each other, and attracting flies. I dumped them in the trash and now buy meal worms from the pet shop. I obtained some "super worms" and found that the coots wouldn't eat them. The super worms also stink.
A critical shortage of mealworms Tenebrio molitor in pet stores began in June, 2008. Mealworms (shown at right), crickets, and other insects are widely used as pet food for birds and reptiles. The shortage was more problematic at this time of year because the birds are molting, and need more protein in their diet. The cause was reported by stores to be the flooding in the midwest United States. However, the actual cause may be more sinister as worm growers all across the country are having difficulty getting their worms to grow and reproduce.
The recent trend to using GMO ( genetically modified organism) grain crops may be causing problems for growers who produce insects. GMOs are genetically engineered to resist insect damage.
Considering the current controversy, it is not easy to find unbiased information on this subject. About.com Biotech/Medical has a summary that describes the nature of the GMO. Coot News for Sept. 2012 has a note about the opinion of a large medical agency on GMO food.
"Super Worms" (shown at right) Zophobas Morio are still available, but in a smaller size. Previously, this species of worm was sold in much larger size, and the birds did not like them. These smaller worms (medium size) seem to be more attractive to the birds. Now the birds won't eat the old mealworms and only eat super worms.
A few companies that advertise on the internet offer direct sales of super worms by overnight residential delivery. The superworms arrived with all worms in excellent condition, having come from Illinois the previous night. They travel in a cardboard box with screen on two sides. Anyone who picks up the box can see the worms crawling around inside on pieces of egg carton, with a slice of fresh apple or potato.
Recently I have had the best success keeping worms in a container with an open top. It is filled with wheat bran about an inch deep and lettuce is added daily for moisture. The pieces of egg carton are cut to fit and placed on top of the wheat bran. Every few days, the worms must be "cleaned" by the use of a kitchen strainer. Less frequently, it will become necessary to empty the entire thing into a larger container and pick out the live worms, wash the smaller container and start over with fresh material.
When you remove the worms from the shipping box and place them in your plastic container, you can cut the pieces of egg carton to fit inside. If you lay one over the other on top of the wheat bran, the worms will congregate between them. This will make it easy to catch the worms for feeding the birds. Eventually the worms will chew holes in the egg carton material.
The cost of shipping is about twenty dollars, nearly the price of the one thousand worms. However, with local prices of about six dollars per cup of one hundred, this saves almost twenty dollars.
Coots will eat fresh fruit, melons, and grapes when they can get them. Beaky Coot likes watermelon since he is familiar with it. He is shown at right, eating small slices of watermelon from his dish. Any food items must be cut into small pieces so he can eat them.
Once a wild coot scurried up to me at the sidewalk and dropped a green seedless grape. I broke the grape into two pieces and handed it back so the bird could eat it. Coots can't swallow anything much bigger than a pea, and are not very strong. The birds may scavenge all sorts of items discarded around the marina.
Ornithological journals say that corn is high in carbohydrates and makes a good high energy diet. At one time, the coot seemed to prefer corn to worms. By early in 2008, Beaky had lost interest in eating corn. Currently in 2009, he will eat a bit of corn with the pudding. His taste varies.
In fact, most migratory coots I encounter here will not eat corn. It seems odd to me to hear about bulk feeding coots with corn. Even migratory coots that have been well trained by hand feeding will not eat it. When placed in their beaks, they simply drop it and continue to look up at me to be fed.
I wanted to try commercial poultry feed for the coots to see if I could find a more nutritious diet. Six samples were obtained from a feed store. The coot knew what he had to do, and obediently tried them all. It seemed like he might tolerate the Purina laying mash, and showed some interest in the wild bird feed (probably because of the dried corn). The coots really didn't like any of it, and probably only captive animals would eat it. This feed is relatively cheap at 40 cents a pound, but if you wouldn't eat it, wild coots probably wouldn't eat it either.
The basic criteria for commercial feed is to be easy to store and handle, and most importantly, be made for less than 40 cents per pound. It won't work if it costs too much. A potential problem with commercial feeds is that they are often made from animal byproducts. TSE (Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy ) is a group of progressive degenerative conditions that affect the brain and nervous system, and is transmitted by cannibalism.
In 2002, I would put out an open bag of bulk rolled oats and a coffee cup with water. The coot could come and go, and eat whenever he wanted, and not make a mess.
Blackbirds were beginning to be a problem, eating the coot's food and hanging around in large numbers. To thwart the blackbirds, I hid the food under the bath towels that are always around the boat. I showed Beaky where I hid his food and Thirty minutes later, but never before, he was busy wadding up all the towels he could find searching for food. A week later, the blackbirds began looking under the towel also.
Since he got the idea that the food is hidden, he will continue to turn everything over until he finds what he wants, or throws everything over the side into the bay. Cups and towels can often be recovered at low tide.
By 2006 it became obvious that playing with the coot up on the boat was very dangerous. A hawk attack proved that I could not protect the coot from everything, and if he ever fell inside the boat's cockpit while I was away and could not get out, he would be an easy meal for any predator. Since then, the coots stay on the dock.
Beaky the Coot seems to like lettuce. Iceberg lettuce is often thought to be toxic to birds and reptiles. It simply lacks the nutrition essential for wild birds, and captive animals fed nothing else will soon starve. However, Beaky is not starving, and always has appreciated variety in his food more than anything. He will tire of something he liked a month ago, but want it badly again a year from now. This may be a perfectly natural seasonal effect when foods are only available at certain times of the year.
There is certainly moisture available in lettuce, and clean fresh water is hard to find in the marina. Beaky (and most coots) has always liked to eat the pieces of eelgrass (Zostera marina L.) found floating in the bay.
There seems to be a persistent urban myth that feeding bread to wild birds is bad. It is hard to understand this because some form of processed and baked grain product has been the dietary center of every civilized human culture for thousands of years. People often fall victim to popular fads in nutrition, and the news media helps out by presenting opinion as fact. Since it's been impossible to find any clinical trials of feeding bread to a decent size group of wild birds, all you find is presumptive opinions and conjecture. Some anecdotal evidence is presented in Angel Wing. But, this involves two basic theories concerning the cause, one of them genetic.
Feeding Cage Birds by K.C. Lint is a comprehensive reference about recommended diets for wild birds, and many of the daily feeding schedules include some form of bread with other types of feed.
The first problem with feeding bread is the technnique. The Biblical form of "casting your bread on the waters" just causes pollution and in most locations is illegal. However, here in the marina, the strict economy of the sea means that nothing is wasted. All sorts of animals examine every crumb, and even the fish come up to the surface to feed. How to throw birdseed at ducks is germane and makes as much sense as anything.
The only concept that makes any sense is that government agencies, property managers, and nonprofit corporations simply don't want people and animals hanging around making a mess. It creates a nuisance for them. People are most likely to have bread, so telling them that it's bad to feed mushrooms (as an example) to the birds would not have such a wide effect. They only want to get rid of the animals, and people too if they can. The idea that feeding bread is bad, is a pervasive misinformation program that has become very destructive. As wildlife is driven out by loss of habitat, every effort is made to exterminate the last few survivors in the urban environment.
They say that hand feeding wild birds prevents them from eating their more nutritious "natural" food. Take a look around. In most cases where people feed birds, they are in an urban city or public park. The only food available is from human sources. Birds are here because they have been able to adapt to this environment.
Many local government agencies post "Do Not Feed" signs in parks. The most important priority for every property manager is the convenience of the manager. They don't want wild birds in the park, and they would rather like to do without the people too. Sometimes the signs are an indication that they are trying to illegally abandon or dispose of live animals. If there is an applicable law, the signs have no legal effect unless they include a penal code number on them. Take the time to research the code number, it may be wrong, and just put there to intimidate you. If this were illegal, they would just call the police.
The loudest warnings come from nonprofit corporations who have political and financial interests. They may feel that they need to perpetuate misinformation to maintain their ability to draw contributions and grants. They have the legal permits and want you to know that they are the only ones who can care for the birds and make money at it.
A small number of complaints say that feeding birds makes them late for migration. With the cold and stormy spring this year, many birds may not survive migration. I try to feed them as well as I can when I know that they will be leaving soon. I wish some could stay longer. The female coots may know that they are carrying eggs and are almost always gone by the end of March.
Sometimes, these things are just mean-spirited efforts to harass innocent people.
Don't feed the squirrels? Nuts to you, she says
Our Daily Bread
The following website is an example of the type of harmful misinformation spread by both government and commercial managers:Don't Feed the Ducks
The first line: "If you feed them, they will come" is a clear indication that the intent of this warning is to eradicate the ducks for the convenience of the property manager. Bizarre excuses that imply that the birds have somewhere else to go or something else to eat only hastens to justify the extermination of these animals. Finally, adding the idea that there is something about birds that may be harmful to human health is just incredible. Perhaps you think that the reason why people who handle sick and injured wild birds every day don't get sick, is because they have the government permits.
Late in 2007, the "Do Not Feed" signs appeared in the Port of San Diego public parks and similar signs appeared at the RV Resort nearby. In late summer wild birds protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 began to disappear. Depending on estimates, between 50 and 100 wild mallard adults, hens and ducklings had been taken by illegal means by May of 2009. Following the general outrage of marina tenants, the US Fish and Wildlife Service agent conducted an investigation. The scale and horror of what had happened just overwhelmed any of the rational people here who were unprepared to provide any substantial evidence of this crime. The ultimate result of this was the US Fish and Wildlife special agent being "mad as hell" and determined to prosecute. The response was dozens more "Do Not Feed" signs posted on the marina property in defiance of federal law.
You figure out who killed the ducks.