COOT (Fulica atra)
This is probably the most common and most obvious bird of this family. In Switzerland it inhabits lakes, ponds and slow moving rivers and so is mostly a bird of the low valleys - although it does nest up 1000m in the Vallée de Joux. It generally attracts rather little attention as it is both common and largely a black somewhat dumpy and rather boring looking thing. However in the right light the plumage has a glossy sheen to it and the magnificent white shield above the beak is really quite an interesting structure, with a rather mean looking red eye below it.
It is however a highly territorial and quarrelsome bird and so is usually making lots of noise. Furthermore in winter they gather together in large flocks which may be up to 1,000 or more, and may be tightly packed if the water is partially frozen, and to make matters worse their territorial behaviour seems to start as early as December or January and so there is always plenty of arguing and aggression going on these flocks. It is almost as though they all hate each other but life is still better than being on your own !!
The sounds made by them in these interactions are generally variations on two themes. The first is what is known as the "kowping" call of the Coot as sort of harsh croak that may be made as a single call or several may be run together. Here is a sequence of single calls:
It is a strident quite explosive sound with its fundamental energy at about 1.8 Khz but with harmonics above and below this as can be seen in the spectrogram:
The second theme in Coot sounds is an even more explosive sharp "phit" which can sound very mechanical when made at its most violent:
That was a Great Reed Warbler singing in the background there. The strongest energy in this call is at about 6.5 Khz, so quite high pitched, but it does extend across a wide range of frequencies:
But the situation is by no means absolutely clear and sometimes these two themes can seem to mingle together, listen to the following piece from a flock in December, it starts with largely "kowping" calls but between about 9 and 15 seconds in there occurs a series of about 4 calls which are really a mixture of the two - a "kowp" that starts with an explosive spit:
At the end of that last piece (at about 45s) there was a frantic outburst of both sets of calls as two birds came into conflict - kowping calls and the "phit" calls which when in active conflict almost sound like the two birds are spitting at each other in hatred.
This is when things get serious and when they do this Coots also adopt aggressive body language - they may stretch their necks out to display the white shield whilst raising their wings and tail to make themselves look bigger (as swans do with their wings and some people call this the Coots "swanning" display). In this posture they swim rapidly at or around each other and so you can hear the water being disturbed in that last recording.
But they can get even more violent and rush at each other, beating the water surface with their feet and wings, and colliding feet first where they kick and peck at each other each trying to push the other over and get on top - the loser usually flees before this happens, but if not the victor can then get on top of the loser pushing him or her under water and holding them there. The loser then has to swim away under water, surfacing nearby and fleeing rapidly. It can all get very dramatic, especially close to the the egg laying period, or when the chicks are newly out of the nest. Adults will attack the chicks of their neighbours if they stray over into their territory.
Here are two birds really going at it very hard with each other, kowping, spitting and chasing each other around - even the nearby Mallards get caught up in it all and seem to be quacking their encouragement:
The adults eat mostly vegetable material - algae and water weeds, supplemented by the occasional aquatic insect. A lot of this is obtained by diving and they have large feet with webs along the toes, these can be seen when they walk on land or get involved in the fights described above. Their nest is usually a large untidy affair hidden in reeds or other waterside vegetation, sometimes it is a raft but more often anchored to a branch or half-submerged log.
The young are very different from the adults, when small they are very scruffy with bright red heads but as they grow the feathers come through dark with a pale neck and chest and a distinctive dark mark near the tip of the beak. At this stage they follow their parents around begging persistently for food: