The moorhens and coots, of lakes and ponds, are easy to tell apart. Waterhens have bright red bills with yellow tips, and some white on their tail feathers, writes Richard Collins.
Coots are black all over, except for a pure white shield extending up the forehead from the bill to the crown. ‘Bald as a coot’ is a misused expression; a man so described isn’t bald. The top of his head is bare from the forehead upwards, but he has hair at the sides above the ears.
In their sombre clerical dress, lacking the gaudy glamour of ducks and grebes, these water birds seem dull and colourless.
However, there’s more to them than meets the eye, as I discovered on a recent visit to
el Marjal dels Moros (the Moors’ Marsh) in Valencia, Spain. There, among the ducks egrets and ibises, was one of Europe’s oddest birds, a crested coot.
Coots and moorhens behave like ducks, a family to which they are not even remotely related. The rail order has about 133 species worldwide. The differences between rails and ducks become obvious when you see their feet. Those of ducks are webbed, whereas rails have very long unwebbed toes, suited to walking through dense aquatic vegetation. These also function as paddles. The purple swamp-hen, another rare Spanish resident, even climbs trees.
The Swiss Army knife bills of rails are multi-purpose tools. Some rails have a good sense of smell, unusual in birds. An octopus releases a cloud of ink when threatened. Coots, it is claimed, do something similar; a flock of them can kick up a misty spray to confuse swooping gulls and hawks.
Heavy, and with large rear-ends, rails are reluctant to fly. Some species can’t do so at all. Others are adventurous travellers. Moorhens ringed in Denmark and the
Netherlands have turned up in Ireland and coots from as far away as
Russia visit us in winter. This wanderlust has enabled rails to colonise every continent except Antarctica, setting up shop on islands in the Indian and Pacific oceans, where their descendants have evolved into distinct species. Visiting lakes high in the Andes, I was surprised to encounter the familiar water-hen of farm-ditches back home.
The land rail, or corncrake, another great traveller, is the most famous member of the tribe. Even when it was very common, and kept us awake all night with its rasping, the bird was seldom seen. Skulking in dense vegetation, rails can be very difficult to study; not surprisingly, a new species is discovered every few years or so. Such birds, and their nests, are vulnerable to ground predators, particularly rats cats and mink introduced by us; at least 22 species have been rendered extinct worldwide.
The crested coot, a native of southern Africa and Madagascar, managed to establish a foothold in the north of Morocco and Spain. At first sight, this bird appears indistinguishable from the familiar common coots around it. During the breeding season, however, two small red knobs become enlarged on the top of its head. Much more aggressive than its common Eurasian cousin, the crested coot doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
It drives away inquisitive birds much larger than itself. Even Egyptian geese are sent packing. It is also, apparently, very stern with its own young, giving them such a hard time that only a minority survive to fledging. How such odd, and apparently
destructive, behaviour should have evolved is a mystery.
Two hundred years ago, the crested coot was fairly common on the Iberian Peninsula but, according to the authoritative Birds of the Western Palearctic, published in 1980, it faced extinction there. Now, with the
creation of reserves such as el Marjal dels Moros, its numbers are slowly increasing.
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