Those Old Coots!
by Marcia Wilson
Down at the college wetlands there is a bird with hydrofoil feet.
(That’s not as crazy as it sounds. Quit laughing)
Meet this plump, square-shaped bird with a bone plate on its forehead and blood red eyes and a beak shaped in a permanent smirk. It swims through the water with a jerky, stop-animation motion so it looks like it is trying to ride a rocking chair across the wetlands. This is our Marsh Chicken or Mud Hen—the American Coot, Fulica americana (translation: Fool American). It hangs around ducks and geese but is genetically closer to Sandhill Cranes. Life can be funny, and that family tree is even funnier.
Below: a coot flexes its crazy feet at the lowlands. It is perched on one of the fence posts for the historic Flett Dairy, this portion of which is now owned by CPTC.
When it takes off for flight it likes a long runway so those feet can slap down on the surface of the water. After the City of Tacoma cleared weeds from around the Flett Creek pump station you could see them pounding and flapping frantically in a straight line until they finally achieved loft. For a bird that looks as aerodynamic as a refrigerator, that’s impressive. Also, hilarious.
Hail to the Feets! Engineers love to study them because they are key to the bird’s adaptation to both solid land and water. The Coot has collapsible skin instead of webs between tehir toes. he skin folds up, then unfolds like a sail with every step or paddle. Think of how your umbrella workds–push expands, pull contracts. The hydrofoil mechanism adds to the illusion of a grummpy old man, rocking away and grumbling at the other birds when it swims.
Those feet are also why they look like the Team Mascot for Circus Freak Volleyball. They can give the impression they are walking on skeletal hands.
What does this bird have to do with the term, ‘crazy old coot’ or, ‘stubborn old coot’ when we talk about grumpy old men? It’s a funny story. Coot was once a general, all-purpose word for a group of seabirds, but particularly the common murre. The male is annoying during breeding season—he wants everything to go his way!
American Coots are not much better; their plural term is a codgery of coots!
Grumpy or not, we need them here. They eat stupendous amounts of plant matter, including invasive species that chokes our wetlands. Here is a bird that appreciates a good persicaria salad.