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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Update: June 2012