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Coots, Gallinules and Rails
Nature Bulletin No. 351-A   September 27, 1969
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

COOTS, GALLINULES AND RAILS
Each spring and fall, thousands of Coots stop to rest and feed in the marshes and shallower lakes of the Chicago region, or along the shores of Lake Michigan, and some nest here in summer. Great rafts of them may be seen: dark slate-gray birds, smaller than most ducks, with black heads and white pointed beaks. A coot's head bobs forward and back as it swims, like that of a chicken walking, and hence the common name "mudhen". They are less wary than ducks and drift casually away from an intruder but when seriously alarmed they skitter off, spanking and splattering the water with their wings and feet until airborne.

The coot is the most aquatic member of its family, which includes the gallinules and rails. Its long toes, with sharp toenails, have scalloped lobes which enable it to swim and dive like a duck but it can run quite rapidly on land. Coots are very noisy, gabbling all sorts of croaks, hoots, grunts and other queer sounds. All coots have a silly gawky expression and adult males have fiery red eyes. They are as good to eat as ducks and many are killed by hunters. They feed on small aquatic animals and underwater plants but are especially fond of chara or musk grass. By November, always migrating at night, they have departed for the Gulf Coast, the West Indies, Mexico or Central America.

The Florida Gallinule or Water Hen is found in freshwater marshes from California to Chile, and from Argentina to Maine, Ontario and Minnesota. Although much more common in our southern states, a few nest here in Cook County. They have a great variety of harsh fretful calls, the most common being 4 or 5 squawks followed by a series of clucks or abrupt froglike "kups". Gallinules do not gather in large flocks, like coots. Their large long-toed feet enable them to walk or run over the surface of the water on lily pads or other floating vegetation. The Florida Gallinule resembles a coot but is easily distinguished by its yellow-tipped scarlet beak and the scarlet plate on its forehead. It swims with the same bobbing motion but with its tail up, showing its white underside. The back is brownish and the flanks are marked with white.

The purple Gallinule is rarely found north of the tidewater marshes along our South Atlantic and Gulf coats. Excepting only the male wood duck, it has the most elegant coloring of any waterfowl: purple head and neck, glossy green upper parts, a yellow-tipped carmine beak, a pale blue shield on its forehead, and long yellow legs .

The Rails are shy secretive birds that live along the shores of marshes but are rarely seen. They have short rounded wings, long legs, and narrow bodies. Some kinds migrate to Bermuda, the West Indies, Central America, or as far as Brazil and Peru. Most species are especially noisy at dawn and dusk, with a variety of queer calls by which only an expert can identify them. The King Rail, about 17 inches long, is largest. It is brownish, with a reddish-brown breast and a long curved bill. The Virginia Rail, very similar, has gray cheeks and is about 10 inches long. The Sora Rail, with a black face, and short yellow bill, is a little smaller and most common. The Yellow Rail and the Black Rail, a spotted mouselike bird is only 6 inches long.

We know a man, poor soul, who is as thin as a rail and as silly as a coot.


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