This Is What Happens When A Coot Tries To Run On Ice

The huge, goofy-looking feet of coots aren’t made to run on anything, least of all extremely slick ice.

Yesterday I spent some time photographing birds at a pond near my home. Much of the pond was frozen but there’s two areas of open water separated from each other by about 50 yards of ice and most of the birds congregate where the water is open. That set up a hilarious scenario with coots.

Coots apparently feel vulnerable to predators when they’re on the ice (presumably because they can’t dive to escape) so whenever one of them felt the need to move from one patch of open water to the other it would attempt to run as fast as it could across the ice to reach the safety of the water on the other side. The sun had come out and it had warmed up just enough that there was a thin layer of water on top of the ice so it was incredibly slick.

All images are presented in the order they were taken.



I spotted this one when it was still far away but approaching the open water in front of me fast (I don’t know the sex of the bird but for the sake of convenience I’ll refer to it as a male). Typically they don’t use their wings when they’re running but every time his feet would slip on the ice his wings would come out for stability.




But time and time again his legs would come out from under him and he’d have to try to recover (keep in mind he’s running fast the entire time).




Those silly looking and very long lobed toes didn’t make his task any easier.




It often seemed like his feet were determined to go in a completely different direction than he was.




Occasionally he’d make a few steps without slipping and that gave him enough confidence to fold his wings and attempt to run normally.




But it never lasted long before his feet went their own way again.




He seemed to be perpetually off-balance.




One foot or the other always seemed to be going its own way.





Here he’s slowed down slightly because the water’s edge that he’s approaching was thickly packed with gulls and other birds and he was obviously starting to think about picking a spot where he could squeeze between the gulls and get in the water.




But even at that slower speed he couldn’t keep his feet beneath him as he tried to change direction slightly.




Here he’s picked a spot between the two gulls at bottom to access the water.




But he was still running fairly fast…




so his feet continued to be uncooperative.




This coot definitely wasn’t having any fun.




But eventually he did reach the water (at lower left).




I can only imagine his sense of relief as he stopped running, folded his wings and plopped into the safety of the water.

I took 92 images of the coot as he was slip-sliding across the ice and I was laughing so hard the entire time I’m amazed any of them are sharp. Other than this bird I was pretty much skunked on the pond so a little comic relief was welcome entertainment.


PS – Apologies for not providing image techs but with this many images I simply ran out of time.

PSS – Is anyone else hearing Paul Simon’s “Slip Slidin’ Away” in their heads about now? I got that ear worm so out of the goodness of my heart I decided to share… 🙂



69 comments to This Is What Happens When A Coot Tries To Run On Ice

  • Robert (RJ) Davis

    Ron, You have captured an experience that everyone can relate to. Those natural inglorious moments devoid of vanity, just a goal to achieve, moment by moment. Thank you for this observation. Cheers! Robert

  • Jerilyn Duefrene

    Great action photos! I never knew they had such big feet!

  • Pam Skaar

    Coots are always a hoot!

  • Sorry I haven’t responded to all the latest comments. I got myself into a bit of a mess this afternoon. It’s complicated but it involves painting the garage door to match the new siding. It was 14 degrees F this morning so I had to build a plastic-covered wooden frame around the door opening to keep things warm enough so the paint would dry properly. These things always take longer than anticipated and I barely finished the first coat before dark. And more freezing temps…

  • Jean

    LOL, the poor bird, and the look on the Gulls face as the Coot waltzed past him. Priceless!

  • Mikal Deese

    Don’t Coots, just like Grebes, have to run across the water to take off? If so, there was no way he could just jump into the air ala ducks to fly. Poor guy just isn’t built for these conditions! I’m sure his vulnerability and panic just made his situation worse. Poor guy! (But thank you for sharing your experience. I’m sure the Coots would laugh at us too!)

    • Yes, they do have to take off from the water, Mikal. But this bird started out IN the water (in the other area of water that wasn’t iced over) so he could have flown to his intended destination if he’d chosen to.

  • Kent Patrick-Riley

    Score: 10 in Winter Olympics Coot Ice Dancing

  • I am awed at the coot’s recovery skills. I would have planted on the ice very quickly. And probably stayed there. The one and only time I went skiing I rapidly discovered that I was fastest on my face…

    • Laura Culley

      HAHAHA EC…I never tried skiing. I figured it probably wasn’t a good idea to put long pieces of polished wood under my feet while standing atop a large snow-covered hills! I’d already proven repeatedly that gravity works when I tried ice skating. Like you, I went far farther and faster on my face 🙂

    • EC, I had more than my share of face plants when I first started skiing but I got the hang of it pretty quickly. Maybe if we had wings instead of ski poles we’d fall less often…

  • Jane

    My laugh for the day!! Thanks, Ron! Great series!

  • jeff

    HAHAHA! Great series Ron! Nature certainly isn’t always graceful!
    Like someone else mentioned, I had the Blue Danube waltz going through my head looking at these! 🙂

  • Pat

    Was the coot embarrassed? When it arrived at the water did it start to preen, like a cat does after a goof?

  • Levi V.

    Hilarious series! Coots are the best!
    This may be an odd question, but I’ve had it and forgotten to ask about it for a while now. Do you see a lot of animal bones? I like to find lots of things (rocks, shells, old objects, dead creatures, artifacts) but I especially like bones. The brush is so dense around here (the most common type of environment is chaparral, which is very spiny and practically impenetrable when it hasn’t burned down in a long time, with mostly steep, crumbly, hills) that animal skulls are very hard to come across. I have the skulls of a deer, a coyote, a raccoon, a bird, and a rat. So do you see a lot of animal skulls, and what kinds of animals are they from?

    • Levi, I wouldn’t say I see a lot of them but I do run across them now and again. I’d see them much more often if I was walking more instead of shooting from my pickup. In the past the most interesting skulls I’ve found have been weasel and badger. Deer skulls are fairly common around here and in some areas of Montana I frequent.

      • Levi V.

        Thanks! I was just wondering because I know that where you are there’s lots of wide open plains so they’re probably easier to spot.

  • Neat sequence of images Ron. Images #1,#4,#8,and #14 the coot looks to be using some good “ice skating” technique. In particular image #8 it almost looks as if it has is wings (hands) held together behind itself in that classic skating pose 🙂 I bet that was a real hoot to photograph that coot on the ice.

  • Chris Sanborn

    Fun-fun-LOL-funny! Not for poor coot, of course, but I love a good laugh (and a look at birds in their natural element) to go with my morning coffee. This series definitely reminded me of my first experience trying to ice skate. My Canadian farm-boy father could not believe how uncoordinated his SoCal-bred daughter was! (I was 15 at the time, and it never got better. So coot has my sympathy; my dad gave me none.) Thanks for a great series, Ron!

    • This brought back many memories for me too, Chris. I learned to ice skate as a young kid in Montana and I’ve never, ever been so bone-chilling cold in my life since!

  • Marina schultz

    Definitely speed skating and definitely hear the rythym !!!!!🎧💃

  • Susan Stone

    Coot feet are always interesting to look at. One has to wonder what they are adapted for. The series is wonderful – it definitely put a smile on my face, and I wish I could have seen it in person. I’m sure the poor Coot was not having fun, but he did his good deed for the day, giving us a lot of pleasure. I probably shouldn’t laugh at his misery, but it’s too late now…

  • Laura Culley

    There’s just no reasoning with ice, is there? But this coot’s dilemma goes to prove the water on the other side is not always clearer (grass/greener) 😉 But you just gotta wonder why s/he didn’t employ her/his wings for flight. I mean, if I were flighted, well, I certainly wouldn’t be messing with ice. I’d be hanging out in the sky. LOL!
    Sybby, love your mind image, which is almost enough to make up for Ron’s ear worm installation 🙂

    • “But you just gotta wonder why s/he didn’t employ her/his wings for flight”

      I wondered the same thing, Laura. Though coots can fly they aren’t strong flyers so maybe they just prefer other methods of locomotion in certain situations…?

  • Patty Chadwick

    Even the gull looks amazed at what they’re witnessing…whether it’s the feet, which are unbelievable, or the action…or both!

  • Carlotta Grenier

    What a wonderful series and a very healthy laugh, thank you for sharing and wishing you many many great images to take for 2017

  • Marty K

    As someone who has lost the battle to gravity and a low coefficient of friction more times than I care to remember, my tuchus aches for this poor little guy. I’m most impressed by the sharpness of your images, Ron. I would have been laughing too hard to even keep the lens trained on the bird! The last few shots with the gulls make me think of turkey bowling. And of course, the whole series reminds me of Allan Arbus’ lines from MASH: Ladies and gentlemen, take my advice. Pull down your pants and slide on the ice.

    This series is 2016 in a nutshell; I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry at the absurdity of it all!

  • frank sheets

    What a wonderful series! Smiling all the way thru and I can understand why you were yucking it up.. Some of the images remind me of an Olympic speed skater. But what really blows me away are coot’s feet. Being a biologist Ron, what possible evolutionary advantage could these feet have, other than paddles allowing them to run on water to get away from predator? That could be it, but coot’s feet have always amaze me.

    Thanks again for make my morning coffee a little better.

  • It seemed, especially looking at the third to last picture that the Coot was ice skating!

  • Bobbi Hamilton

    Absolutely Wonderful!!!!

  • Mitch

    This is the finest, and maybe only, look I’ve had at the “lobes” on their toes. Excellent documentation, Ron.

  • I shall now say, “I feel like a coot running in ice” anytime I feel out of place and awkward. Thanks for this morning joy!

  • Diane Bricmont

    Poor Coot! We don’t see them often in rehab, but when we do it’s often following heavy rains. They mistake rain-soaked parking lots for ponds, and are frequently injured in the crash-landing. When the water recedes they are stranded on the pavement. Glad you were there to capture this journey to open water!

  • Carol Keeler

    I love the sequence! He really looks like a speed skater with some of his moves.

  • Dick Harlow

    Ha Ha Ha Ha
    Gee Ron, from the heading I thought we would see a video – but in some respects I think these shots are funnier!!
    Great series, thanks for putting humor into my day as we wait for a large snow storm to hit this PM!
    The skiers will be very happy, but it will be nasty for photographers.

  • Sybby Latham

    A slo-mo video with The Blue Danube playing in the background…with a few sharp toots on a slide penny whistle when he slips! lol Nice work, Ron!

  • Charlotte Norton

    What a wonderful series Ron,thanks for sharing!

  • Judy Gusick

    How funny even if it sure wasn’t for the coot! 🙂 Shouldn’t laugh as even walking on wet ice for us humans isn’t exactly “fun” 🙂 Glad you caught it and had some fun even if not getting other photo’s you may have hoped for.

    • “even walking on wet ice for us humans isn’t exactly “fun”

      Judy, if you’ve never experienced it (wet ice) it’s hard to imagine how incredibly slick it is.

  • Mk

    Thank you! I sure needed the humor today.

  • Don Weber

    Many of the images look like a speed skater from the Olympics!

  • Nancy Blake

    Great series of that poor coot. I love their feet, but they sure aren’t made for running. Any one of those images could win an award, especially 4 and 14 (looks like he is taking a bow in that one).

  • Thanks, Ron. I’d love to see a film of this! 🙂