Black duck-like bird with red eyes, white beak, green-yellow legs.
Swimming in local lakes and rivers, especially the John E. Poole wetland.
Often confused with
They are parasitic nesters, and often lay their eggs in each other's nests.
Aquatic kickboxing: two words that I never would have thought to associate with American coots.
But that's what these black, duck-like birds do, according to Ludo Bogaert, a retired museum diorama artist who lives in St. Albert.
"They fight like the dickens in the springtime," he says.
When they're competing for a mate, you'll see them rear back on their tails as they float towards each other on the water, wings flared out to look big, kicking away with the claws on their long, yellow legs, grunting and honking all the time.
"It's like aquatic kickboxing," Bogaert says.
Bogaert has spent years painting, modelling and photographing birds on Big Lake such as the American coot, so he knows what he's talking about. A drab, black duck-shaped creature with a white bill and red eyes, these birds have turned out to be a lot more strange than I would have thought.
Chickens that swim
Coots are one of the more common waterbirds you can find in St. Albert, and one of the easiest to recognize – they're the black ones. Unlike European coots, these birds have white feathers on the undersides of their tails. He calls them "signal lights."
American coots are usually seen gobbling up duckweed along the boardwalk of the John E. Poole wetland, Bogaert says.
"They eat it like salad."
Lee Foote, a wildlife biologist at the University of Alberta, tells me he has a lifelong relationship with American coots, having grown up with them in the southern United States.
"They were all around the place I grew up in," he says in his Louisianan twang.
Where he comes from, the locals would often hunt them for food. Many used the bird's huge gizzard for gumbo.
"It's half the size of your fist. It's an amazing organ," he says.
The first thing to know about coots is that they're not waterfowl, Foote says, as they don't have webbed feet.
"They're actually more closely related to whooping cranes than they are to ducks," he says.
Coots have lobes between their toes that help them push themselves through water, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. With their tiny tails, short wings and big, clawed feet, they are considered by some to be chicken-like.
They do look like chickens, Foote agrees, which is why the folks in Louisiana call them poule-d'eau (chicken of the water). They're very chatty, going "krrp" or "prik" all the time, and often bob their heads like chickens as they swim.
They're not the best fliers either. While a duck will fly away when spooked, a coot will prefer to swim, Foote says. When they do fly, they have to sprint across the water, flapping furiously to achieve lift-off.
In fact, you'll almost never see a coot flying in the middle of the day, says Gary Erickson, assistant curator of ornithology at the Royal Alberta Museum.
"They mainly fly at night," he says, and almost never migrate when it's light out.
That gives them the ability to seemingly materialize overnight. You'll have an empty pond one day in spring and the next, bam! – coots everywhere.
"The old wives' tale was that they actually didn't migrate," Erickson says.
Instead, people thought coots burrowed into the mud for the winter and popped up in the spring, earning them the moniker "mud hens."
My favourite quality about coots is their fashion sense. Baby coots seem to go through a rebellious, punk-rocker phase when first hatched, as their black fuzz is surmounted by a wild orange collar and a blood red head. They seem to go corporate in their teen years, as they put on grey suits of feathers, before becoming full-on Birds In Black as adults.
American coots are considered a "lesser duck" by some, Foote says: they're dull-looking, common, lousy fliers and hard to cook.
Still, he admires their tenacity.
"Ducks are powerful fliers, but coots are more the survivors."
American coots usually stick around the John Poole wetland until around October, suggests a study of the region by local naturalist Dan Stoker.
But spot them while you can, because they'll vanish at the first sign of ice, according to Bogaert.
"You will come there one day, and there will not be a coot to be seen."