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Brian Korthals/Daily Globe The American coot has been regular visitors of Lake Okabena and its' shores for several weeks this spring.

SCOTT RALL COLUMN: American coots are ugly, but cute

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WORTHINGTON -- I think it matters very little if you love them or hate them, this animal will always find a way into your field of vision. In fact, if you live in Worthington, you will very often find them under the wheels of your car.

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I am referring to the common coot. The proper name is the American Coot and they love the lake and shores of Lake Okabena. These awkward looking creatures seem to be everywhere. Everyone thinks they are a duck, but in reality they are a member of the rail family -- more like other shore birds and less like ducks.

Every spring they show up in town and remind me of the rustic country living-type folks who do not want to mow their yards so they fence it off and cut loose a sheep or two and have their own live-in lawn mower.

These birds are all over the place and, as they make their way from the snow-covered grassy areas back to the water, end up becoming road kill quite often. I imagine being a coot and getting to Minnesota what looks to be three weeks too early has made life pretty tough for them.

I have seen and heard lots of reports of dead robins and other wildlife. I was talking to my purple martin expert and he said he has seen the early scouts of this species and he thinks they will all die. They are an insect-eating-only bird, and with all the cold and snow there are no insects. I asked if they could migrate back south and it seems they are not very good at that.

Coots eat just about anything, but sitting along the street near the old swimming pool, next to the three-foot-high snow bank, still offers little to eat. They like vegetation, fish and other water animals. They really like to eat algae, but don't stay around Lake Okabena long enough to enjoy the abundance of this meal later in the summer.

They nest on the water and make a floating nest in shoreline vegetation and lay 10-12 eggs. They love to lay their eggs in other coots' nests, and do so on a regular basis. Not a bad gig if you can get it. Lay your eggs at the neighbors and then let her do all the work -- it seems like a perfect setup if you're a coot.

The bad part of this effort is that the working hen can tell the difference between the young that hatch from eggs that she laid and the offspring of other hens who parasite her nest.

They just feed their own and the parasitic young often do not survive. A hen coot will even feed the young with the best feathers more than the uglier ones. So, if you are a good looking coot chick, your survival chances are better. It will always be a mystery to me how the hen can tell the difference. Mother Nature has way more than a few tricks up her sleeve.

There are not many mammal predators of coot. They nest on the water so foxes, raccoons and other nest predators are not very successful. On the other hand, avian predators can dine quite easily on coots. Owls, hawks, crows and magpies all eat coots or their eggs. In some locations, adult and juvenile coots can comprise up 80 percent of the local eagle population's diet.

Coots can be harvested by duck hunters, but for the most part they are only shot by accident. Hunters call them the mud duck and say they taste really bad, but down south they are often used in Cajun dishes like jambalaya. You hardly ever see a coot fly very far. They run across the water until they get up enough speed to lift off.

I can remember back in my youth, a duck hunter got frustrated by the lack of desirable ducks and decided to shoot a few coots. He never picked them up until he waded back to shore and the game warden asked him where his coots were. He then waded back out and picked up the coots he shot and cleaned them in front of the game warden. He did this only to save himself from a wanton waste ticket. I don't think he ever shot a coot again.

I was only about 12 years old at the time and I was not involved, but this is a lesson I have never forgotten. Coots are on the list of least concern in regard to their population numbers, so maybe it pays to taste bad.

I said earlier that you hardly ever see a coot fly. They must fly because they migrate great distances, as far south as Central America. I asked around and learned they only migrate at night and can do so in very large flocks.

The next time you see a bunch of these big-legged, black-bandit, double-stepping, crossing-the-road-in-front-of-you coots, give them the brake and know that even if you find them ugly and wish they were somewhere else, they will soon be eating algae from an area lake or pond, We are all hoping they eat it all.

Bon appetite.

Scott Rall is The Daily Globe's outdoor columnist. His column can also be read weekly at www.dglobe.com.

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