They may be black and white but coots have a really colourful life

Fighting coots. Photo BTO/Jill Pakenham
Fighting coots. Photo BTO/Jill Pakenham
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In my youth I used to catch a lot of birds, especially when I was training to be a BTO ringer. I vividly remember getting up early on cold, February mornings to visit a reservoir in Staffordshire to catch ducks.

If we were lucky we would fire a cannon-net over a flock of wigeon, feeding on bait in front of the net. If we were unlucky, instead of these placid, prettily-marked ducks, we would catch coots.

There is not much to a coot; these are scrawny black birds, each with a mean look in the eye, a sharp beak, big scratchy feet and a drippy, green bottom. Whilst a coot ended up wearing a shiny, numbered ring, the ringer would often have a nasty, infected scratch as a memento.

You may well have seen coots on a local pond or gravel pit but you’ll rarely have seen one in the air.

If feeling threatened, coots will fly low over the water, using their lobed feet to run across its surface. This ungainly performance belies an ability to migrate long distances, as you’ll see if you look at the on-line ringing report on the BTO website. Three birds caught during the winter have turned up in Russia, with others in Finland, Sweden and lots in countries just the other side of the North Sea. When you see a flock of these birds on a lake in the winter time, you may be looking at an international congress of coots, especially if there is a big freeze in mainland Europe.

Most of our visitors will be leaving over the next month and local coots will turn their minds to breeding.

Their big feet are once more in evidence. These are fiercely territorial birds and, if a dispute cannot be settled by threats and explosive calls, then fights can be protracted and violent. By flapping their wings, they are able to dance on the surface of the water so that they can use their claws to try to injure their opponents.

It’s a bit like watching a kung fu movie but with a different sound-track and lots more splashing.

As the breeding season progresses, a pair works together to raise a brood of chicks, and sometimes two. The male provides most of the materials to build a large nest, with the female doing the construction work.

Both parents brood the eggs and the male brings in food whilst the chicks are very young. Only a parent could love these ugly, young chicks, with their bald, red heads; it is quite touching to see a previously-aggressive adult bend down to feed its youngster. There’s a soft side of these feisty birds.

NEXT TIME: The heron – 85 years of BTO surveys.