Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Coots Scoopin' Booty

by Amy Alton, Communications and Policy Associate

If not for recent and shocking reports of pirates capturing large vessels on the high seas, I would not have believed that pirates truly existed. Honestly, until a little over a year ago, I was na├»ve enough to think that pirates were the stuff of movies and amusement park rides. Imagine my embarrassment at several dinner parties in exposing this truth… But talking pirates got me thinking about another pirate—one of San Francisco Bay’s truest resident pirates: the American Coot.

This bird even looks like a pirate; it has a black body with a bone-white beak and red eyes! You can find coots all around San Francisco Bay, and in especially large numbers at Lake Merritt in Oakland and the duck pond in Palo Alto. But don’t mistake the coot for a duck! Its feet are lobed, rather than webbed, making it part of the rail family. The lobes allow the coot to have both sea and land legs—good for swimming, diving and walking.

Another pirate-like feature: coots are kleptoparasitic, which means that when they don’t feel like hunting for their own food, they’ll steal their booty from other species, such as dabbling ducks, or diving ducks bringing plants up to the surface of the water. They’ve even been known to swipe the food right off a duck or swan’s bill!

Like pirates, coots are often viewed as obnoxious, ugly, and unwelcome pests (hence the term, ‘you old coot!’); but when their population decreases, it’s often a bad sign for other species, as well. Coots are an important indicator species of the overall health of the wetland ecosystem. While pirates may be a danger to those sailing the high seas, I suppose this particular pirate might not be so bad after all.

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