A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


American Coots look something like ducks, but they’re actually in the same family as gallinules and rails (Rallidae). Coots are present all year in Sonoma county but become more common in the winter months. Those that spend the summer tend to hang out on freshwater ponds and lakes, but Coots can be found fairly reliably on saltwater at the coast as well. Numbers begin to grow from early October. They start to thin in May. Coots are gregarious. They are normally found in small flocks (sometimes very large flocks in the winter). The Coot is ungainly in flight, yet it migrates from the Canadian north to our waters and much further south.

Plump, dark brownish-bluish grey to black overall but with a blacker head and neck. The combination of an all-dark body and starkly white bill is distinctive. The bill has a dark, often diffuse band near the tip. Note the small, fairly inconspicuous reddish “shield” above the bill. In good light, the bright red eye is obvious. Legs greenish yellow with oddly webbed feet, but these are hidden more often than not, as Coots tend to stay on water (although they are known to occasionally graze on lawns and golf courses). White feathers on the rump conspicuous when seen from behind (photo below), much less so otherwise. Immature birds are paler and browner than adults. Coot chicks are dark but with an orange-red head and neck. According to Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, American Coot breeds in Sonoma County at the coast at The Hole in the Head, but mostly inland on ponds and lakes. The somewhat similar Common Gallinule (Gallinula chloropus, until recently known as Common Moorhen) has a red bill with a yellow tip. It is a more streamlined bird and much more skittish and secretive than the Coot. It's usually seen alone or with just one or two of its kind. (Although I once counted 33 together at Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility, that is quite unusual!) Common Gallinule is also distinguished by a broken line of white along the flank lacking in the Coot.

The similar-looking Eurasian Coot, with a white rather than red shield on the face above the bill, is a separate species (Fulica atra)--hence the name American Coot for our birds. Local birders simply call them Coots. To confuse things, the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America points out that some American Coots have a white facial shield that makes them resemble the Caribbean Coot (Fulica caribaea) as well as the Eurasian Coot, but the latter seems to have been noted in North America only as an occasional stray in the far north and Caribbean Coot is normally confined to the Caribbean islands and extreme north of South America. Sibley and Peterson also note that some aberrant American birds have white above the bill. The vast majority of adult American Coots, however, will have a small, fairly inconspicuous dark red patch above the bill (photo below).


Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 47

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 162

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 64

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 150

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 160

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 189-190

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, pp. 35, 103-109

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 133

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 143

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 54

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 143

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 88-89

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, (no entry)

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, pg. 126

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, pg. 124

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  pp. 64, 118

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, pg. 139

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 204

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 126

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--American Coot



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


American Coot, Lake Ralphine, Petaluma, October 31, 2011

American Coot: Rear view showing white at rump. Bodega Bay, October 18, 2011

Coots are gregarious. Bodega Bay, October 18, 2011

Young American Coot: Note overall pale grey color, dark bill

Lucchesi Park, Petaluma, November 8, 2011

Juvenile American Coot: Note overall pale grey color, dark bill

Place to Play Park, Santa Rosa, September 10, 2012

American Coot

Fulica americana

American Coot: A good view of the red “shield” above the bill

Roberts Lake Park, Santa Rosa, December 13, 2012

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated May 30, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County