When it’s a rail. And if it’s black (mostly) with ugly striped feet, it’s a coot.
Right now, in the midst of the fall migration, coots are plentiful here in Western New York. In fact, they are plentiful just about anywhere there is fresh water — the experts call that “cosmopolitan distribution.” I call it ubiquitous. In fact, coots are so ubiquitous that academicians regard them as bioindicators of environmental health. In any event, I’ve seen coots on Irondequoit Bay and the Montezuma wetlands, so now is the time to snap an image or two of these sleek black divers.
Coots and ducks get along very nicely, probably because they have a lot in common — they are both expert swimmers. So it’s not unusual to find mixed flocks plying the marsh pools for vegetation; however, both ducks and coots find small fish and insects just as tasty as duck weed and swamp grasses. It’s this carnivorous part of their diet that gives ducks and coots a “gamey” flavor — strange, though, how many a hunter will dress and roast a duck but not many (if any) will make a coot stew.
Which is just fine with the osprey, eagle, and fox populations, who don’t mind a coot dinner at all. Coot eggs and nestlings are fair game, too, if you happen to be a hungry raccoon or snapping turtle.
Despite their similarities, though, coots and ducks are unrelated. While ducks share an ancestry with geese and swans, coots belong to the same order as cranes and limpkins.
P.S. By the way, coots love their ugly striped feet, thank you very much. They are almost as good as webbed feet for swimming and for getting a running start for flying. They are pretty good for walking, too. In fact, those oversized gangly toes are what allow coots to walk so nimbly on the matted, half-submerged plant debris that forms the muddy border separating water from dry land. . .I’d like to see a duck try and do that!