With small wings for its size, the unusual water bird is among species that rely on leg power to help them “spatter” their way into flight.

Share story

Before you can run, you have to learn to walk.

And before you can fly, at least for the coot, you have to run.

To get airborne, “think about the amount of strength needed. They’re more like a 747 taking off,” says Connie Sidles, Seattle Audubon master birder.

The coots beat their wings as they run across the water, a process called “spattering.”

Sidles says they look “like footballs with small heads and long legs.”

A coot isn’t a kind of duck, but a kind of rail. Sidles says, “Like the Jay Leno of rails, not shy.”

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology calls them “plump, chickenlike … an awkward and often clumsy flier.”

John Klicka, curator of birds at Seattle’s Burke Museum and professor of ornithology at the University of Washington, says they have “kind of bizarre feet. Not web feet, but (they) have little flaps of webbing along each toe for swimming. Sort of an evolutionary solution to swim.”

With small wings for their size, flying is not what they’re best at. They dive for feeding on underwater plants but aren’t exclusively vegetarian.

They’re not reluctant to take a tadpole or salamander. Or grab a beetle or dragonfly.

It’s unknown how the phrase “old coot” came to mean a crusty, old curmudgeon. But, Marc Devokaitis, of the Cornell Lab, says the birds “are aggressive, quarrelsome and belligerent.”

But about this rail, Sidles says, “They’re one of my favorite birds. They’re goofy.”