Derbyshire Wildlife - The Coot


Coot - Credit: Archant

Commonly found on Derbyshire’s waterways, Paul Hobson finds this elegant feisty little bird well worth watching

Carrying nesting material

Carrying nesting material - Credit: Archant

Watching water birds is normally fairly easy. This is mainly because they are clearly restricted by the boundaries of their habitat, and these usually have good footpaths around them. We love nothing better than a walk around a lake or along the banks of a river or canal. The presence of the water adds another dimension to our rambles, and it shouldn’t be too long, particularly in lowland Derbyshire, before you come across a coot. This large, powerful and rarely shy water bird, alongside the ubiquitous mallards, is ever present and often very vocal.

Many people confuse coots with moorhens. Both are dark birds but coots are sooty black while moorhens are browner. The phrase ‘as bald as a coot’ is also a timely reminder of how to differentiate between the two species. Recorded as far back as 1430, the simile relates to a Middle English use of ‘bald’ for a white patch – as in ‘piebald’, spotted with black and white – and coots have a distinctive white plate above the bill, while on moorhens it is red.

Coots are doing really well in Derbyshire. They can be found on most bodies of water that have a few key features. The water needs to be still or have areas that are slow flowing. Bradford Dale is a good example – each ‘pond’ created by one of the weirs has at least one pair of coots, yet you rarely see them on the shallow, fast-flowing stream.

The water also needs to be relatively shallow and have plenty of weeds. Many of the new gravel pit reserves like Willington, near Derby, are perfect. Canals also offer these same ideal conditions and both the Cromford and Chesterfield canals have good populations.


Coots - Credit: Archant

Some of our larger reservoirs can also be ideal. Carsington, for example, is a brilliant place to watch them. In fact in winter here you can count over 1,000 coots. However, the large northern reservoirs such as Ladybower are far from ideal as they are deep and have very few water weeds.

Coots are showy birds and live their lives in full view. They can also be incredibly entertaining, particularly in spring and summer.

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Coots are very territorial and defend their nesting stretch of waterside with incredible passion and violence. Often these skirmishes start in late winter when the birds may actually be in their winter retreats, such as Carsington. When a rival bird or pair tries to intrude, the resident duo is quick to defend their kingdom. Initially a head down power swim towards the intruder may suffice to show him or her the error of their ways. However, if this does not do the trick the head-down swim erupts into frantic wing beating and an incredibly aggressive sprint on top of the water. The speed at which a coot can move is really impressive. If this does not do the trick, open warfare follows. With their backs on the water the two coots attempt to knock seven bells out of each other with their huge feet. Eventually one will back down and a form of high-tension peace is regained, until it happens all over again.

As well as allowing them to run on water as they gain speed and act as a useful weapon, their huge lobed feet are also ideally adapted to help them dive for food. Nesting is an obvious affair. Coots don’t attempt to hide the large stick-and-weed nest. Often it is so obvious, anchored out in the middle of the pool or canal that you wonder why it’s not raided by every crow that flies across. Then you remember and admire the coot’s pugnacious attitude.


Coots - Credit: Archant

Coots may actually start nesting in February and eggs have even been laid in this month in Derbyshire. They can lay quite a large number – a few years ago in a nest in a pool in Cressbrook Dale I counted ten. This large number of eggs is a bit of an insurance policy as a number of young never make it. This is due to a variety of reasons, mainly because of predators like foxes and herons, but there is a more sinister side to the story. When young coots beg for food the parents can sometimes turn on them and peck them, even to death. If you witness this behaviour it can be incredibly stressful and seems inexplicable. The coot has gone to all the effort of incubating all those eggs for a month or so, then seems to turn on some youngsters and commit infanticide. The answer is probably that there is a food shortage and it’s a bizarre way of reducing competition for those precious resources. Better some live than all starve.

So perhaps the phrase should not be ‘as bald as a coot’ but ‘as pugnacious...’. Even here I could argue that by pugnacious I really mean ‘an admirable bird that fights very hard to defend its right to breed yet has a darker side to its personality’.