baldy-by-red-janunsen-flickr-cc
Don’t call me Baldy. Coot by Red Janunsen, Flickr Creative Commons

Whenever I pass between the two little ponds that adjoin the road to my house I see a small flock of coots grazing on the grass. They look like fluffy black commas, rather comic birds, from which character its name perhaps derives. The white shield above its beak has given rise to the phrase, ‘bald as a coot’; and to be ‘queer as a coot’ is to be somewhat silly, a term that does seem to reflect its ridiculous temper. For the coot is one of the most curmudgeonly creatures one could hope to meet. In the breeding season one will often see a bird ‘spattering’ across the water in high dudgeon, wings flapping furiously, determined to curb the ambitions of a rival bird to sneak up on its territory. The Spanish call it pájaro diablo, ‘devil bird’[1]

Apart from the slapstick there’s another side to the coot’s character. Coots tend to lay large clutches of eggs but are far from doting parents. Weaker chicks are deterred from asking for food by a sharp peck from the parent. If the chick persists in begging it will often be attacked; if it doesn’t it will starve. It’s a brutal way to keep the population in check, but it seems to work: coots are incredibly adaptable and are found in many parts of the world.

Coot are classed as game birds and have a season in the UK, September 1st to January 31st.  Apparently they make good eating, but though abundant they are rarely shot for the pot nowadays. This wasn’t always so. Hickling Broad in Norfolk used to see a regular coot shoot of massive proportions, big enough to attract those magisterial baggers of game, the British royal family. How many they ate is anyone’s guess. One recipe for coot suggests you bake it for an hour with a brick, throw away the coot and eat the brick. This seems unfair as coot was once a regular part of the diet of those living close to large expanses of water. But then, people once ate heron and that is reckoned to taste awful, so maybe it was a matter of necessity.

In other parts of the world coot is widely eaten. In the wetlands of Sind in Pakistan they are apparently hunted by fishermen who wade in the shallow waters up to their neck with a pot on their head on which the skin of a coot has been stretched. They mingle with the flocks and snatch them by pulling at their legs[2]. Less exotically the American coot is a target for hunters in many states, though not one that is especially popular[3], perhaps because of its undeserved reputation as bad eating.

I had to do a bit of hunting myself for a poem about coots, and found this one, by Mary Howitt. She was a remarkable woman, who wrote many books, taught herself Swedish and Danish, and wrote the famous poem Spider and the Fly, which Lewis Carroll adapted to The Lobster Quadrille. Mary’s coot is perhaps rather more maternal in its instincts, but they do sometimes build floating nests.

The Coot, by Mary Howitt (1835)

Oh Coot! oh bold, adventurous Coot,
I pray thee tell to me,
The perils of that stormy lime
That bore thee to the sea!

I saw thee on the river fuir,
Within thy sedgy screen ;
Around thee grew the bulrush tall.
And reeds so strong and green.

The kingfisher came back again
To view thy fairy place ;
The stately swan sailed statelier by,
As if thy home to grace.

Cut soon the mountain-flood came down,
And bowed the bulrush strong ;
And far above those tall green reeds,
The waters poured along.

“And where is the, the Water-Coot,”
I cried, ” that creature good ?”
But then I saw thee in thine ark,
Regardless of the flood

Amid the foaming wave, thou sat’st.
And steer’dst thy little boat;
Thy nest of rush and water-reed
So bravely set afloat.

And on it went, and safely on
That wild and stormy tide;
And there thou sat’st, a mother-bird.
Thy young ones at thy Bide.

Oh Coot! oh bold, adventurous Coot,
I pray thee tell to me,
The perils of that stormy voyage
That bore thee to the sea!

Hadst thou no fear, as night came down
Upon thy watery way.
Of enemies, and dangers dire
That round about thee lay?

Didst thou not see the falcon grim
Swoop down as thou passed by?
And ‘mong the waving water flags
The lurking otter lie!

The eagle’s scream came wildly near,
Yet, caused it no alarm?
Nor man, who seeing thee, weak thing,
Did strive to do thee harm?

And down the foaming waterfall.
As thou wast borne along,
Hadst thou no dread? Oh daring bird,
Thou hadst a spirit strong!

Yes, thou hadst fear. But He who sees
The sparrows when they fall;
He saw thee. bird, and gave thee strength
To brave thy perils all.

He kept thy little ark afloat;
He watched o’er thine and thee;
And safely through the foaming flood
Hath brought thee to the sea.

 

[1]  Cocker, Mark. Birds and People (Kindle Locations 6776-6777). Random House. Kindle Edition.

[2] Cocker, Mark. Birds and People (Kindle Locations 6847-6848). Random House. Kindle Edition

[3] Cocker, Mark. Birds and People (Kindle Locations 6849-6850). Random House. Kindle Edition.

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