The Australian coot has actual clown feet
Becky Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.
MEET THE Australian coot (Fulica atra), a boisterous waterbird with a vast range that stretches from Eurasia to Indonesia, New Guinea and Australia. Also known as the Eurasian coot, the species has made its way to New Zealand in recent years, expanding its habitat even further.
In Australia, these birds can be found in lagoons, swamps, lakes and ponds all over the mainland and in Tasmania. With a sooty-black body, shiny black head, and a bright white bill, their bodies are elegant, especially when hiding their clownish feet under the water.
They also have a bright white frontal shield – a solid plate that runs down their forehead and has a texture similar to tough, calloused human skin. Many waterbirds have them, including the jacana and the swamphen.
Here’s an Australian coot in all its glory. It’s so darn proud of its feet:
Australian coots are often mistaken for dusky moorhens (Gallinula tenebrosa), which have similar plumage colouring, but their frontal shields are red and their toes are yellow and slender.
Australian coots might look sweet, but they have a reputation as being the dirtbags of the waterbird world. They’re loud and aggressive and very territorial. They will fight with each other and with other species, particularly during the breeding season.
Even their own chicks aren’t safe. Many bird species are very patient when their young are squawking in their face, demanding food. Some species even put up with it when it’s another bird’s young.
But when food is scarce, Australian coots take the stress out on their chicks, biting them to quieten them down, sometimes even killing them in the process. Parents of the year, these birds are not.
Speaking of which, we have to talk about the chicks. They’re ugly (but adorable!), even by baby bird standards:
Not that all Australian coots are terrible parents. Check out this sweet little family: