I sat by the pond today and watched as three coot juveniles were feeding. They looked very different to the chicks I saw a couple of weeks ago. There were four of them, and they were out swimming with the parents, learning to forage for food. They were black with a straggly yellow-orange ruff around the neck; the face and crown were bald and bright red.
They looked a bit clownish, and perhaps not really what you’d expect baby coots to look like. But there is a reason why they look like that, and like a lot of wildlife discoveries, it’s really quite interesting.
The coot lays anything between 6 and 12 eggs. They don’t all hatch together, it usually happens over a week, so being the first, second or third chick to hatch out is a real advantage because it means the chicks are feeding and growing before the rest of the eggs have even hatched. The chicks that hatch later are not strong enough to compete against the others when begging for food. Consequently, half of the chicks will die before they are a week old. Survival of the fittest; law of the jungle; call it what you like, it does mean that the parent birds start out with a family that they can support given the available food.
So far in the life of their brood, the parents have just let things take their natural course, they haven’t interfered. But after this natural culling has reduced the number of chicks to a manageable size family, the parent’s instincts kick in an unusual way – unusual for the animal kingdom anyway.
Coot parents are attracted to the bright, gaudy colours of the chicks. In fact, they are drawn more to the brightest and gaudiest ones. So much so, that they pick favourites, and those chicks get a lot more attention than the others when they beg for food.
Normally with animals, the brightest and gaudiest are also the strongest, and most likely to thrive, but it isn’t the case with the coot. Recent study of their habits and genetics has shown that the smaller and weaker chicks are the most brightly coloured, and it is them that the parents are drawn to when feeding. What’s more, when the older stronger chicks beg for food, the parents physically attack them to put them off begging. Instinct tells them that the older chicks are more ready to start feeding themselves, so they give them less. The younger ones, however, have fallen behind and need to be fed more often so they can catch up with the others.
Create a Picture or Card
It is too late this year to see any more baby coots so why not create a reminder for next year. You can find a picture to colour by downloading this Coots colouring sheet (PDF). Use the picture below as a guide to the colours you might like to use. Look how the light plays on the water and reflects all the colours around the pond. Also, you could create your own angry coot pop-up card by downloading this card template (PDF).