American Coot – The Schoolyard Bully

The apparent intent of this thug was to intimidate and terrorize the other coot. It worked.

I seldom publish the same species in back to back posts but while I was culling photos yesterday I came across these coot images that I’d forgotten about. Yesterday’s post featured the softer side of American Coot behavior – a bird that had just bathed peacefully and was drying off its wings by flapping them. Today we see the flip side, yet another example of the bellicose and belligerent behavior coots are known for. 


1/2000, f/6.3, ISO 800, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

Thirteen days ago I was photographing other birds on the pond when I heard a commotion right in front of me. One coot had hopped onto the back of another piggyback style which had the apparently intended effect of terrorizing the other bird. The aggressor made no attempt to bite or otherwise harm the second bird, instead it just seemed to stare intently and closely at the screaming victim during the ride and dare it to respond defensively or aggressively.

I was so surprised by this unexpected development close to me that I had difficulty tracking them in the water as they moved to my left so many of my shots were soft or I cut off large parts of the birds.



1/2000, f/6.3, ISO 800, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

But this one, even though I cut off the bill of one of the coots, shows the continuing calm nature of the intimidating coot and the terrified reaction of its victim. After this shot was taken the bird providing the ride eventually swam out from under its hitchhiker.

Assigning motivations in situations like this is of course difficult and fraught with error. When coots fight the brouhaha is typically furiously frenetic but these two never did join in battle. This species does a lot of threatening and intimidating too and I’m convinced that’s what was going on here although the form it took was a new one for me. I’d never seen this type of piggyback intimidation in coots before (assuming that’s what it was).

Some may wonder if this was an attempt at mating but I’m confident it wasn’t. Typically American Coots don’t mate until late spring and I didn’t see (or photograph) any behavior that even suggested one bird was trying to mate with the other (except for the piggyback position of the one coot). Cornell’s Birds of North America Online has this to say on the subject: “No reports of courting or pair formation on wintering grounds”.

Bird behaviors are endlessly fascinating. And often mysterious.




23 comments to American Coot – The Schoolyard Bully

  • Wildlife never ceases to amaze me Ron and your photos here show that. You never know what you are going to see and sometimes it is hard to understand what one is seeing.

  • Coincidentally, I witnessed a similar encounter only a couple of days ago. Two coots were moving along peacefully with a third following a short distance behind. When the third moved nearer, one of the coots rushed it and briefly mounted its back. There was some screaming and the third coot escaped very quickly, keeping its distance following the episode. Definitely not a friendly interaction! I got one crummy overexposed photo, as I had increased the exposure compensation a full stop to photograph a small bird in a tree just before the action unfolded. (This never happens to a real pro, right?)

  • My anthromorphic mind is in overdrive.
    Some people are just oxygen thieves, and it is possible the aggressive coot falls into that category too. ‘I am going to be horrible because I can’. And we will never know.

  • DianefromZion

    That bottom coot just needs some Red Cross Life Saving lessons to sink or dive under ASAP! lol

  • Dan Gleason

    Coots are fascinating and too often overlooked by many birders. They show a very wide range of behaviors. I once watched a flock of 80+ coots calmly step out of the water and stand on a strip of land where many began preening. About 30 minutes later they all walked an additional 50+ feet to the next pond and swim off together. I’ve also seen vivious fights between individuals, although these are usually front to front attacks, not piggyback as you saw. I’ve seen females lovingly gather and care for their chicks and I watched a female once who singled out one of the chicks, viciously attack it around the head, push it underwater and eventually drown it. Never think of them as “just a coot” and move on to watch other birds. A close look will always reward you with interesting behaviors, whether it’s an individual, interactions between 2 or more birds or interactions with other species (many fascinating stories there).

    • Interesting stories about coot behavior, Dan. I’ve often seen those “front to front” attacks and they truly are vicious, using their feet especially to do the damage. In one such encounter I photographed it looked like one of the coots was deliberately attempting to gouge out one of the eyes of the other bird.

  • Marina schultz

    I love coots !! Especially those adorable chicks they have!!!

  • Marty K

    This is partly why I like coots so much — you never know what you’re going to see with them. Well, this and their cool lobed feet. The rider seems to be grinning in the second shot (how’s that for anthropomorphising?).

  • Laura Culley

    Very interesting behavioral shots. I’d GUESS the behavior has SOMETHING to do with breeding. Perhaps it establishes a hierarchy of who gets to breed and who doesn’t, the aggressor establishing who’s in charge around here. But that’s just a WAG that doesn’t rise to the level of a SWAG! There’s so much about bird cultures that they keep to themselves. 🙂
    I don’t know a lot about water birds, except for mallards who turn the breeding process into a violent encounter for the females. After that, my knowledge level drops like a rock into oblivion.

  • That first image says it all! Great capture!!! Seems like bullies are everywhere….

  • Judy Gusick

    Interesting! Almost like an attempted drowning – torture if you will….

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