The Ubiquitous Coot

The American Coot (sometimes called a Mud Hen) is here, there, and everywhere. If you visit a marsh, pond, or lake; you’re pretty sure to see a coot – even though you can’t see anything else. They are hiding along the cattails, resting along the shore, or out in the open to find food. I’ve even seen them eating bird seed underneath a feeder.

I’m sure you have seen coots, but did you know that they have pastel blue feet and pastel green legs!! It’s as if they were painted with Easter egg dye! I’ve never really noticed the color of their feet before, because they are usually in the water. Their white beaks and white tail feathers are easily seen, but not their feet. We first noticed them while sitting concealed close to some bird feeders in Southern Arizona. The feeders were close to a lake and the coots were coming up on shore to grab some of the bird seeds.

Coots have toes – not webbed feet like ducks. This makes them nimble on land. Each toe has lobed flaps which act as paddles when swimming. Flight for a coot involves a long, laborious taxi over water, so they seldom fly. If alarmed, they will run wild across the water surface flapping their wings, leaving a trail of splashes.

They feed on water plants, small fish, tadpoles, insects, and come on land to eat grass and even acorns. The hen lays two to three broods a year of six to eight eggs. Chicks have sooty down feathers and brilliantly colored heads with a red patch on the front. The parents feed in the daytime, but return to the nest at night to brood the chicks. When breeding season is over, they gather in large groups. This is a guard against aerial attacks, as each individual is harder to single out. They will beat their wings to throw up a shower of water in the face of an attacking hawk.

An American Coot feeding on land

Such colorful legs and feet

Muskrat: The Beaver’s Lesser Cousin

Muskrats seem like little beavers – both are rodents, and both are in the same family. Both have similarities, but the Muskrat is smaller and has a round tail instead of a flat one. Their houses are even similar, except the Muskrat’s is constructed of herbaceous vegetation (often Bulrush) instead of wood.

I don’t know how many times we have spotted this rodent, rushed to get a photograph, only to have it submerge out of sight for a long time. It can be a long time, because they can stay under for as long as 15 minutes. If that isn’t enough, they can always enter a burrow dug under the water’s bank. The photos we have are strictly the result of good luck.

These animals seek wetlands where the water is 5 to 6 feet deep with plenty of sedges. They are mainly herbivorous but will eat frogs, clams, and small fish. The interesting thing about their diet is that they consume up to a third of their body weight each day – a tremendous amount for a mammal, although equaled and surpassed by birds.

They have a couple of unusual traits: communicating through their musky odors and heterothermia. This is the control of the blood flow to their feet and tail. This allows those parts to remain cooler than the main body.

Muskrats only live about 3 years in the wild. This calls for fast reproduction and the reaching of puberty as early as 7 months. Heavy reproduction is also necessary for the species survival because so many predators find this animal a very desirable food item.

muskrat at An early breakfast of Bulrush

An early breakfast of Bulrush