Coot Parenting Tips

This is a coot.

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(Photo by Dan Pacamo.)

These are baby coots.

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(Photo by Böhringer Friedrich.)

I… I sure hope nothing bad is going to happen to those little guys.

(Spoiler alert: if you agree with the above statement, you may not want to click the read more.)

You may have noticed that the adult bird is the most singularly evil looking creature you could possibly imagine, compared to the babies, which are just kind of balding and vaguely ugly. The adults? They have been through some shit. It changed them. Warped them, even.

It doesn’t start out so bad. Like many bird species, coots are seasonally monogamous and mama and papa will raise the kids (generally an average of about 6-9) together. The parents encourage the babies to start swimming and feed them, as you can see in this peaceful video.

Three or four days after the chicks hatch, however, things start to change.

The parent coots will begin attacking one of their own chicks by vigorously shaking its head and neck. They begin these attacks on each chick at first, but they eventually settle their focus onto one or more in particular. Often, the persecuted chick stops begging for food from its parents, where it then… starves to death.

Like I said, coots start out with 6-9 chicks, but end up with about two or three.

If you’d like to hear the dulcet tones of David Attenborough narrating this phenomenon, you can watch this segment of the Life of Birds.

Now, at this point you’re going, “What the fuck, Koryos! Why are coots such fuckin assholes?” And you’d be right- outright killing your children is rather unusual, even among birds that lay more eggs than they take care of. (Usually they sit back and allow the siblings to kill each other over scraps of food, which is nice of them.)

The crux of the matter seems to be that they simply can’t feed everyone in the brood. They can’t find enough food to feed all nine most years.You ask, “Well, why do they even LAY nine eggs if they can’t feed them???” And I respond, “Look, shit happens, sometimes an egg gets eaten by an oviraptor or stepped on and sometimes it’s actually a really good year and they can afford to buy all the nappies they need and no one needs to die! So why not lay nine eggs just in case?”

(You nod knowingly at this very logical assessment.)

So is it, like my buddy David suggested, because the parents are “choosing the strongest chicks?” The chicks that’ll be the most likely to survive to adulthood and make more chicks?

It seems pretty logical, but- and I hate to contradict David- it’s probably wrong. That theory is based on research that came out in 1984, and there’s been a lot more since then.

For example, research on moorhens, which, as you’ll recall, are a close relative of the coot, found that they had some of the same behavior. Except the chicks they attacked weren’t the weakest of the brood, but the largest. Again and again, they drove them away, allowing the weaker chicks to get more food. To these researchers, it seemed like the opposite was happening: rather than favoring the strongest, the moorhens seemed to be actively discouraging sibling competition among their brood. And um, if the larger chick happened to get driven off to the point where it starved to death, uh… I think the phrase is “killing with kindness.”

So was that the secret of the coot chick gauntlet? Mom and dad were just trying to keep the peace?

I don’t know about you, but six out of nine chicks killed ‘accidentally’ while ‘trying to stop the kids from fighting’ is a mite suspicious to me. It seems like, pardon the expression, overkill.

Ok, so what the hell is actually going on with coots, then?

Well, as it turns out, coots have a dirty little secret. They are occasional brood parasites.

You ever heard of what the cuckoo does with its eggs? It lays them in the nests of other birds, whereupon the baby hatches first, murders its adoptive siblings, and tricks the parent bird into feeding it as it swells like an engorged tick.

The coots do this too, except they do it to members of their own species. When a mama coot gets sperm in her snoot but has no territory to make a nest on, she gets crafty- she sneaks into the nests of other coots and quietly deposits a few eggs. It’s actually a pretty sweet deal because then she doesn’t even have to take care of them, she can float off and let the hapless nest-owner do the work. In fact, some nest-owning coots still become brood parasites part of the time.

Now I think you have an idea of where this is going by now. Why would coot parents suddenly decide to kill off over half their brood? Could it be because they aren’t chumps and they don’t want to raise some other fucker’s kids??

There was a study done on coots to examine how they tell the difference between their chicks and the sneak’s chicks. Turns out they don’t really know, they just base it all on whatever the chicks that hatch earliest look like. Which makes sense- a smart brood parasite is not going to lay eggs in an empty nest, as even the dumbest coot might find that a little strange to come back to. So the first-hatchers are probably the coot’s actual children, and since there’s a good deal of variation between the looks of the chicks of different coots.

The scientists even found that if they swapped out the eggs so that the parasitic kids hatched first, the coots would turn on their own children. You scientific bastards!!

So um, what’s the lesson we can take from all this? Birds are fucking complicated? Yeah, that’s probably close to it.

BIRDS!!!!

Sources!

1984 paper on coots suggesting that the parents picked the strongest chicks

Parent-offspring aggression in moorhens

Coot brood parasitism

About Koryos

Writer, ethology enthusiast, axolotl herder. Might possibly just be a Lasiurus cinereus that types with its thumbs.
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5 Comments

  1. Hi,
    I find your article very interesting.
    I live in the Netherlands and have been observing coots in the local pond under my balcony for 4 years now.
    At first I only saw 2 and started throwing some bread out to them, then they nested and had 5 little ones and they started squeaking every now and then under my balcony for more bread to feed their little ones.
    After a while they started being picky on sort of bread, seems like they prefer multi grains thick bread over any else.
    Then one day all 6 of them left, mommy, daddy and 4 little ones leaving only one that always seemed to be the weakest one alone.
    My perception was they left that specific one here because there was an easy source of food there. This weak one then nested 2 generations in the following year – 4 at one go and 4 at second out of which 2 somehow disappeared very early.
    With the last generation and the one coot that was again left alone here, turns out that even though it’s grown on frequent bread supply, this one just preffers its natural wild food over bread. Although it does come for bread sometimes if it sees me throwing it.
    So 8 months later now it’s nested again and seem to have 4 little ones, and now its coming again under the balcony for bread.
    I’m about to leave for vacation for 3 weeks and given that there’s 4 little ones there and I’d like them all to survive and not get starved to death, do you think a bird feeder very close to the water would be helpful for them. If yes, what kind of food should I put there?
    Also, do note these are not parasite chicks as these coots are very territorial, they don’t let a single bird come into their area.
    Appreciate your advise,
    Ivana

    • Hi Ivana,

      Situations like these ones with wildlife are always somewhat difficult. Of course you care for the coots that you’ve watched nesting near your home for several generations- that I can understand. However, my advice to you is to not leave any food for them at all.

      With luck, the coots will be just fine, and able to find enough food for themselves and all their chicks. However, even if the worst should happen, it’s best to let nature take its course without interfering. Coot parenting behavior, as brutal as it may seem to us, has helped the species survive for as long as it has. It’s not really a good idea to become a source of food for them exactly because you may leave for long periods of time and leave them hungry. Since they are wild animals it is best for them to be able to survive on their own. And unfortunately, the tough thing about being wild is that some will not make it.

      My thoughts are that since bread alone is not terribly nutritious, the birds are just using it as a snack, not a food staple. So occasionally feeding them probably isn’t making them dependent on you. Still, I think that it’s important to consider the effects of even well-intentioned acts towards wild animals.

      I hope your trip goes well, and I hope the coots continue to nest underneath your balcony for many more years!

      – Koryos

  2. I rescued a coot young last night as it was in the water to long and got hyperthermia. the nest is on a windsurfing board but they fall in the water and can’t get back on. so I took it and warmed it up didnt touch so I could then return it the mother pushed it into the water rejecting it so I took it i’m looking after it now but he’s weak still now but he’s drinking a little but i’m buying him a heat lamp and that. we named him terry

    • Hey Libby, I just rescued a baby coot and not sure what to do with it ! How did you raise the coot you rescued if you don’t mind me asking? I could use some help as I can’t really find much information online atm, any help would be much appreciated !

  3. Most definitely the best article about coots I have ever read…

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