Faux Duck o’ the Week

Biologist John Avise has taken us through all the ducks of North America (I hope you learned some), but he continues with a new series, “Faux Duck o’ the Week,” highlighting birds that many people think are ducks, but are not. John’s words are indented. Your job is to guess the species of the Faux Duck; the answer, along with the ID, photos, and a range map, is below the fold. Without further ado:

The word “duck” is a common catch-all term for a subset of birds in the taxonomic family Anatidae, which also includes geese and swans.  Thus, any bird not in the family Anatidae is not a “duck”. For the last seven-plus months I’ve shared my photos for many of the ducks found in North America, one species per week.

Experienced birders know a duck when they see one, but of course not everyone is an experienced birder, and many other kinds of waterbirds not in the family Anatidae can superficially resemble ducks in general appearance, behavior, and lifestyle.  These include some Gallinules and Coots (family Rallidae), Grebes (family Podicipedidae), Loons (family Gaviidae), Cormorants (family Phalacrocoracidae), and Guillemots (family Alcidae), among others.  In this next series of Sunday posts, for shorthand I’ll simply call these other birds “faux ducks”.  For the following however-many weeks, while the U.S. is still under partial lockdown, Jerry will post on his site some of my best photos of each “Faux Duck o’ the Week” to help readers gradually learn
various species of non-Anatid but duck-like waterbirds in North America. To accompany each set of photos, Jerry will also post a species’ range map from the Cornell bird site.

Adult in water:

Standing on lobate toes:

Showing white on the rear:

Flock in water:

Flock on land:

Parent with chick:



Portrait showing red eye:

Lobate toe condition:

Now, guess!

Click “read more” for the ID, some facts about this faux duck, and a range map:

ID: American Coot (Fulica americana):

From the tip of their whitish chicken-like bill to their greenish legs and toes, coots are indeed “cute” birds in the family Rallidae.  Unlike ducks, whose three front toes are fully webbed, coots have lobate toes (with the webbing extending a bit laterally from the side of each toe).  This foot condition makes coots more adept than ducks at walking, and coots are equally at home swimming in water or strolling on land.  Coots tend to be gregarious and often are seen in large groups when not breeding.  During courtship or in aggressive encounters, coots may actively display white patches on their rear end (see photo).  The chicks are rather homely with a bald head and orangish bill and neck feathers (see photos).  Older juveniles are a light grey rather than the dark charcoal grey of the sexually monomorphic adults.  These birds are omnivorous, eating aquatic plants, algae, and invertebrates such as the larvae of aquatic insects.

Here’s a range map from the Cornell site:


  1. chrism
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    A cute coot!

  2. Posted October 18, 2020 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    An underappreciated bird. Crazy-colored young and amazing feet!

  3. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    Got it!

    But good to know it is not a duck.

  4. Serendipitydawg
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Instantly said coot, however, I based it on the resemblence to the ones in the UK…

    Are there Moorhens in the USA? They look like a coot but the white around the bill is replaced with a resplendent scarlet. In the UK they are also the more laid back, coots invariably get cross when you sit on the bank observing.

    • john avise
      Posted October 18, 2020 at 8:51 am | Permalink

      Stay tuned– next week’s post will answer your question about the Moorhen.

      • Serendipitydawg
        Posted October 18, 2020 at 9:01 am | Permalink

        Already looking forward to it, thanks!

  5. Jenny Haniver
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    I never fail to read your posts but rarely comment. I’m here now to say that I like the idea of having us identify the faux dux.

  6. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    I expected to see a dozen or so species that are not ducks, but instead we get a marvelous series of coot photographs. I find that foot fascinatingly beautiful.

  7. Posted October 18, 2020 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Glad you are still here, John!

  8. rickflick
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Look at those feet! Large numbers of coots are here on the Snake River, and as the map shows, they are here year around. We’ve seen few other waterbirds have coming through in migration yet. A formation of about 70 snow geese flew over, heading south.

  9. Posted October 18, 2020 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Very nice! I knew these from previous posts on them that emphasized their… let’s say ‘parenting skills’. Did not know about their feet.

  10. Posted October 18, 2020 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Being an old coot myself, I recognized this one immediately.

  11. Dimitrios Papagianno
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    English coots build nests for breeding.
    They use twigs, and the nests are stationary (!)on the surface of a pond, away from the banks.

  12. stuartcoyle
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    This bird looks like a coot, but the ones here in Brisbane tend to have red beaks. I’m not ornithologically savvy so I am most probably wrong.

    • john avise
      Posted October 18, 2020 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

      See next week’s post for the red-beaked relative of the Coot.

    • Posted October 18, 2020 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

      Are you actually seeing moorhens rather rhan coots.
      I’m in far northern NSW where we frequently see coots and moorhens together.

  13. Posted October 18, 2020 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    Charming collection of coots! Thanks!

  14. Derek Freyberg
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

    I’m waiting anxiously for the post on Bombay duck!

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