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 Coot - Fact File
Coot
Fulica atra
Common resident over most of region except north-west Scotland. Influx of birds in winter.
Lakes, gravel pits, reservoirs, preferring larger bodies of water than moorhen.
Plump, black plumage with white bill and frontal shield.
38 cm (15")
 

Coot

I once came upon a reference to a peculiar spring frolic, known as the Coot Custard Fair, said to have taken place annually at Horsey a century and more ago. For the celebration sweet foods were prepared from an abundance of eggs collected from the nests of coots and black-headed gulls and, in all likelihood, other marsh and water birds.

In those days, life for the coot must have been full of care. Although they swarmed on all the Broads and other fresh-water lakes of fair size, they were harassed by guns continually throughout the winter and had their nests plundered freely later on. The reckless exploitation of these birds continued until, by the 1880s, it was noticed that they had become rather scarce. The Coot Custard Fair had perforce to die out.

In the present century, coot are present in greater or lesser numbers on all the Broads, but in some areas, as at Surlingham and Rockland, they are nothing like so numerous as they were in the good old days, either in the nesting season or during the autumn and winter when the Continental 'flighting coot' come in. Hickling Broad is, as ever, their chief rendezvous, and there have been occasions, even in recent years, when they could be counted 'by the acre' on that noble sheet of shallow water.

Coot are alert, noisy and quarrelsome birds. When alarmed they utter a sharp metallic clinking sound rather like that made by a hammer striking an anvil. They fight with their feet as well as their strong beaks and defend themselves from their enemies with the utmost ferocity. I remember being badly scratched and bitten by a coot which I had rescued one autumn night after it had dropped through a skylight of a house in Yarmouth, mistaking the glass for water. It was as much as I could do to carry the bird to the Haven Bridge, where I released it over the river.

One of the most remarkable sights on the Broads in a severe winter is that of packs of coot running like black pigmies over the ice.

One may see their huge, stack-like nests more or less floating. These are built of stalks and leaves of bulrushes, flag, and reed-mace and reed. Sometimes the birds behave like grebes in covering their eggs with weeds before they slip away. Coot dive for much of their weedy food. Once in a while a bird is drowned through having its beak trapped between the shells of a freshwater mussel at the bottom.

By Ted Ellis

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Copyright Information

  • Article: © Eastern Counties Newspapers Group
  • Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge © Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.
  • Other material: © Birds Of Britain