Dear Bird Folks:
I’m in the United Kingdom and a US friend told me about your column. I’ve been reading it each week via your website. If you don’t mind a question from the UK, I have one I’d like to ask. I’ve noticed that several species of birds here in Britain have names similar to the birds you have in America. It can be confusing at times. What is the difference between our Coot and the American Coot (apart from the accent)?
– Catherine, Cambridge, England
Bloody Brilliant Catherine,
I like that little “accent” joke you made at the end. I might use that some day. If I do I’ll send you a quarter or a farthing or a tuppence. Do you still use tuppence or do I need to get over my fixation with Mary Poppins?
For years, some birds that are found within the borders of both America and Europe, have had two different common names, even though they were the exact same species. Depending on which side of the Atlantic you were on, you would either call a loon a “loon” or a “diver.” We said “Marsh Hawk” and you said “Harrier.”
Having two different common names for the same bird really started to bug the people who are in charge of bird names so they (whoever they are) set about making common names more uniform. We were forced to give up Marsh Hawk and you had to give up diver. Still, there are some birds that both sides appear to be holding out on. The Dovekie comes to mind. The bird that we call “Dovekie”, you call “Little Auk.” Now, Catherine, don’t get your knickers in a twist, but the name Dovekie fits the bird perfectly and we aren’t about to give it up. On the other hand I think calling any bird “Little Auk” is rather demeaning. Little Auk sounds like the nickname of the kid who is always chosen last for the kickball team.
When it comes to naming the two coots, they got it right. Your coot is the Eurasian Coot and ours is the American Coot. Yes, the names are boring, but at least they are accurate. The two birds are fairly similar with only a few differences. The coots in Britain tend to be nonmigratory, while Cape Cod only has coots during the colder months. Your coots have a high forehead with a big white patch in the middle of it. The American Coot lacks the white patch, but instead it has a small red dot on its forehead, giving it a more worldly Hindu look.
The name coot most likely comes from its call, but in reality the bird is a total freak and could not have been given a better name. It looks and behaves much like a duck, but its feet aren’t webbed. Instead, coots have long, flat, lobed toes, much like a grebe. However, the coot is not either a duck or grebe, it is in the rail family. That’s right, coots are rails. Bet you didn’t see that coming.
Rails are shy, mostly quiet birds that are rarely seen. They hide in the reeds all day and often feed in the marsh grass at night to avoid detection. Coots on the other hand are like the boys in a frat house. They never shut up, like to be out where everyone can see them and are constantly bickering. Their all night parties can be heard for miles. Unlike rails, coots love to swim and dive in search for food, or walk out in the open and feed like geese. When they need to fly they look like the biggest spaz in the bird world, running, splashing and squawking along the water until they finally get airborne.
And it gets worse. In addition to being weird birds, coots are nasty parents and have wicked ugly kids. No offense, Catherine, but your coots make even worse parents and their kids are even uglier than the American Coots, which is saying something. Far from being cute and fluffy like a duckling, the baby Eurasian Coot looks more like something that you pulled our of your drainpipe. And if that isn’t gross enough, the adult coots will often kill their own chicks. The parents will blame the ghastly deed on food shortages, but I’m pretty sure it’s because they can’t stand looking at such ugly chicks.
Sorry to finish your question on such a grim note, Catherine, but perhaps if you take a spoonful of sugar you’ll feel better about the whole thing.