Coot with its white face shield.

Courtesy of Azel Mauruszat  CC BY -SA 3.0 license

Coots and moorhens.

There can hardly be a pond, lake or canal that does not have three species of waterfowl gracing their waters no matter how small that lake of pond may be. The coot, moorhen and mallard will be seen at these locations sometime during the year. Now that spring is fast approaching,  and the orchestration of new life is flowing through the countryside, these water birds will be commonly encountered.

The coot,Fulcia atra is a member of the rail family Rallidae and is a cantankerous bird full of self importance given much to belligerence and squabbling with other coots is a common occurrence. The slightest provocation will start their aggression especially in spring when they become very territorial and will not tolerate other coots that venture in to their territory. They often fight viciously using their long claws as effective weapons. The coot will drive off much larger birds than themselves such as geese and even swans with a foolhardy bravery that other water birds of their size lack.

Description of the coot

The plumage of the coot appears to be black,especially from a distance. In fact it is blackish grey, with black head and whitish wing bar. Juvenile birds are browner with a whitish face, throat and belly. Nestlings have a reddish orange head and neck

Adults have a white bill and frontal face shield. The legs are greenish the eyes a beautiful red colour, but only seen at close quarters. The toes are long and lobed. The bird has a somewhat rotund body. In relation to its body the wings are medium small; the tail very short, neck medium as are the length of the legs.

The flight is heavy, laboured low over water with legs trailing behind. They have a pattering take off. When swimming they have a bobbing gait. They dive. On land they walk.

Coots feed on small fish, worms and the tender parts of aquatic vegetation. Where they are used to people being around they can become very tame.

Below- the white frontal shield is evident.

Photograph by Dal

Nest and eggs of the coot.

The eggs number from 5-7 with the latter being more the norm, but as many as 12 may be encountered. The eggs are quite unlike any other British bird, although the family resemblance is evident.They are larger than those of the moorhen and of a similar colour being buff and marked with dark blotches, but lack the larger spots that distinguish those of the moorhen. The incubation period is about three weeks.

The chicks are downy with an orange red face and head and have a somewhat comical appearance when they are first encountered on the water. Like many water birds they can take to the water within minutes after hatching. The young chicks of coots are well known for pestering their parents for food.

The Moorhen

Moorhens are very adaptable birds who take their common name, not from the moor as it suggests {they are seldom seen in this habitat} but rather from mere meaning water. Moor is thought to be a corruption of mere in this case, hence the birds alternative common name of water hen. hen because the birds feet are like those of a hen. This enables the bird to scratch for food like a hen does, but they also allow the bird to perch in trees should they be inclined to do so. because the toes are widespread they allow the bird to walk on marshy land and mud banks and just as importantly they enable the bird to swim well, without the need for lobes between the toes as in the case of the coot.

In character the moorhen could not be more different from the coot. The moorhen lacks the aggression of the coot and is a very timid bird much given to flight across the water if disturbed. On land, at the first sign of danger, the tail is flicked to warn other birds before heading for the nearest cover running with its head held low down.

Description of the Moorhen

The plumage is blackish brown above and grey below. There is a white line on the flank and white under tail feathers.{ coverts} The young are mostly olive brown with a whitish throat and belly and white under tail coverts. The bill is red tipped with yellow and the adults have a red frontal face shield.The legs are greenish with a red garter. The eye is red.

In relation to the body the wings are medium short, the tail short. The neck and bill are medium as are the legs. The flight is weak, with legs trailing behind at first. Take off from the water is usually laboured and pattering. They swim with a jerky movement often showing the white under tail coverts. It may dive if alarmed. On land it walks or runs.

Moorhen with red face shield

Courtesy of Mathias Bigge CC BY-SA 3.0 License.

Nest and eggs of the moorhen

The moorhen nests among the reeds and other waterside vegetation some times on a low hanging bough or in rare cases up in a tree. The latter site is often chosen when their are many predators such as the brown rat in the locality.

The nest is large and open, a structure of dry reeds, twigs or any other vegetable debris. The nest is then lined with finer material, and where the birds feel secure it is not at all concealed. When in danger of flooding the nest is raised, and is used as a sleeping place for the young. The eggs number from 6-12, and are very characteristic in appearance, pale buff liberally and evenly spotted with chocolate markings. They may first be found as early as March. The moorhen unlike the coot does not protect its nest and will abandon eggs if danger threatens.

Below -nest and egggs of the moorhen

Photograph by Dal

Two to three broods----

Two to three broods are raised, per season. The young follow their parents persistently waving their tiny wings, trying to attract their attention. Later broods may well be fed by their older brothers and sisters, from earlier broods.

When swimming the head and tail move jerkily, the birds tail is held high as its head. This bobbing movement is characteristic of the species and along with the white tail make the species very easy to identify even from a distance.

Moorhen with brood

Photograph courtesy of Berlin Heck.

BELOW female mallard resting on a canal bank.

Photograph by Dal

Mallards always join the fray

Wherever, the two species occur they will almost certainly share the habitat with the mallard. This our commonest wild duck will be encountered wherever there is enough water for them to land on The females are streaked brownish which helps to camouflage them when nesting. The brown is often interrupted by a patch of blue on the flank. The male in full breeding plumage is an impressive bird, with its bottle green head white collar and chestnut brown breast.

During the moult and the end of the breeding season both sexes look alike and  may be told from each  other by the colour of their bills. The female has a brownish coloured bill at all times while the male has a yellowish coloured bill at all times. This is the key identification feature during the moult.

Conservation status UK-2021

Moorhens- Green list No current concerns.

Coots -Green List of conservation concerns-No current issues. 

Europe- both species are of Least concern. 


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