In case you haven’t noticed, the coots are on the move! They are congregating on wetlands across the state. And of course, one of these days we will look out on those wetlands, and there they will be… Gone!
It is one of life’s great mysteries! One day they seem to be everywhere, but the next morning, poof, nothing. If you are not particularly familiar with coots, they are well known for being weak fliers. They couldn’t possibly fly south for the winter. The standard explanation, albeit unproven, is that a caravan of busses picks them up in the dark of night and speeds them away to a warmer climate for the winter.
Some of you have no doubt seen some of the volumes of Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds by Arthur Cleveland Bent. Bent lived from 1866-1954, and his Life Histories, composed of several volumes, remains the most exhaustive treatment of the biology and ecology of North American birds. It is interesting to note that Bent first observed the coot here in North Dakota.
“I first became acquainted with this curious bird in the North Dakota sloughs, those wonderful wildfowl nurseries of the western plains, teeming with a varied bird life in which the coot played a prominent part, as a conspicuous, noisy, and amusing clown.”
He also accurately describes their preparation for the fall migration.
“They are loath to leave in the fall, lingering often until they are driven out by the freezing of lakes. They gather into immense flocks before leaving and hold noisy conclaves, as if discussing the propriety of departure. On the morning after such a caucus the lake is usually deserted, all having gone during the night.”
As you may have deduced, coots migrate at night. But they are in no big hurry. Apparently, they have no itinerary. Nor do they have a particular destination in mind. They go on a rather rambling journey. But it is southward, probably somewhere south of Nebraska. As long as there is food and open water, they may be content to call a particular location good for the winter. And that strategy works just fine for them. Their spring migration is much the same.
So be on the lookout for the coots this fall. They are on an extended holiday until sometime next spring. But they will be back next spring to entertain and mystify us once again.