Australian coot

Fulica atra Linnaeus, 1758

Order: Gruiformes

Family: Rallidae

New Zealand status: Native

Conservation status: Naturally Uncommon

Other names: Eurasian coot, common coot

Geographical variation: The Australian coot (Fulica atra australis) of Australia, New Guinea and New Zealand is a subspecies of the Eurasian coot, which is widespread in Europe, North Africa and Asia.

Australian coot. Adult on rock. Wanganui, January 2006. Image © Ormond Torr by Ormond Torr

Australian coot. Adult on rock. Wanganui, January 2006. Image © Ormond Torr by Ormond Torr

The Australian coot is a smart, dark-grey, duck-like waterbird, instantly recognisable from its bright white bill and frontal shield. Coots are related to gallinules – the branch of the rail family that includes pukeko and takahe. Out of the water, a coot’s stance is more like a small pukeko than a duck. But instead of the pukeko’s long thin toes, coots have broad fleshy lobes on their short toes, used to give propulsion when swimming. The Australian coot is a recent arrival in New Zealand, first recorded breeding here in 1958. Their colonisation partially fills the niche left vacant by the extinction of the New Zealand coot, which was widespread before the arrival of Maori.

Identification

Adult Australian coots are entirely slate-grey with a white bill and frontal shield. They have red eyes and large grey feet with lobed toes. Sexes are alike. Juvenile and immature birds have duller and paler colouring, with some pale grey on the chin and throat. They have brown eyes and smaller frontal shields. Coots are rarely seen in flight, where they differ from scaup in that their legs trail behind their tails in flight.

Voice: a loud discordant krark.

Similar species: New Zealand scaup have similar body size, shape, colouration and diving behaviour, but differ in having a blue-grey bill and no frontal shield, plus males have a yellow eye, and females often have white around the bill base (cf. blackish facial feathers in coots).

Distribution and habitat

Australian coots are found throughout mainland New Zealand other than Northland, but there are few parts of the country where they are abundant. Coots are entirely aquatic, and there are large parts of the country that do not have their preferred freshwater lakes and ponds with submerged vegetation and reedy, grassy islands or edges.

Single coots, possibly the same bird, have occurred as vagrants on Stewart Island (December 2012) and the Snares Islands (April 2013). Coots have reached Macquarie Island Island at least twice, with at least 7 birds in May-October 1957, and one in June-October 1975.

Population

The Australian coot is a subspecies of the Eurasian coot that self-introduced into New Zealand from Australia in the 20th century, and was first recorded breeding in New Zealand on Lake Hayes, Otago in 1958. There were about 2,000 coots estimated to be present in New Zealand in 2005.

Coots reached New Zealand on many occasions before they established, with at least 9 records from the South Island between 1875 (Lovells Flat, Otago) and 1957 (Heathcote River, Christchurch), before the first eggs and chicks were seen at Lake Hayes in November 1958. The first North Island record was at Lake Tutira, Hawkes Bay in 1954. There was an influx of coots in or before 1957, and they rapidly established as a breeding species.

Threats and conservation

As a self-introduced species, Australian coots are automatically covered by the Wildlife Act, and are fully protected. They are well-established in New Zealand, with no recognised threats.      

Breeding

The Australian coot breeds between September and March and is very territorial during this time. They breed as monogamous pairs, often raising 2 broods per year.  Three to 5 eggs, cream with dark spots, are laid in a floating nest of twigs and vegetation anchored to branches or reeds.  Both sexes incubate the eggs for about 22 days, and older young help feed and raise the new offspring.  The whole family group often remains together until the next spring.

Behaviour and ecology

Coots are the most aquatic members of the rail family, and are less secretive than most other rails. Although they do graze on short grass, they spend most of their time in the water, bobbing their heads as they swim and making short dives after a little forward jump. When alarmed they seek cover among emergent vegetation on the water rather than flying away. They appear to fly reluctantly from the water, pattering across the surface with a lot of splashing before finally taking off or settling in another area.  However, they are strong fliers frequently covering large distances, usually at night. These flights and changes of location do not appear to be seasonal.  Large flocks of coots may form after the breeding season.            

Food

Coots eat mainly vegetation – seeds, algae, grass, leaves, shoots and fruit – but also feed on invertebrates and occasionally, eggs. They will also take bread thrown to ducks.

Weblinks

http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/wetland-birds/10

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eurasian_Coot

References

Fleming, C.A. (convener) 1953. Checklist of New Zealand birds. A.H. & A.W. Reed for the Ornithological Society of New Zealand, Wellington.

Guy, G. 1957. Coot on the Heathcote River. Notornis 7: 163.

Heighway, J.S.; Mackenzie, N.B. 1963. Coots in Hawke's Bay. Notornis 10: 184-185.

Kinsky, F.C. (convener) 1970. Annotated checklist of New Zealand birds, including the birds of the Ross Dependency. A.H. & A.W. Reed for the Ornithological Society of New Zealand, Wellington.

Marchant, S.; Higgins, P.J. (eds) 1993. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic birds. Vol. 2, raptors to lapwings.OxfordUniversity Press, Melbourne.

Moon, G. 2006.  The Reed field guide to New Zealand birds. Reed, Auckland.

Robertson, H.A; Baird, K.; Dowding, J.E.; Elliott, G.P.; Hitchmough, R.A.; Miskelly, C.M.; McArthur, N.; O’Donnell, C.F.J.; Sagar, P.M.; Scofield, R.P.; Taylor, G.A. 2017. Conservation status of New Zealand birds, 2016. New Zealand Threat Classification Series 19. Wellington, Department of Conservation. 27p.

Robertson, H.; Heather, B. 2005. The hand guide to the birds of New Zealand. Penguin, Auckland.

Small, M.M.; Soper, M.F. 1959. Australian coots nesting in Otago. Notornis 8: 93-93.

Recommended citation

Mason, O. 2013 [updated 2017]. Australian coot. In Miskelly, C.M. (ed.) New Zealand Birds Online. www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz

Australian coot

Breeding season
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
Egg laying dates
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun

Australian coot

Social structure
monogamous
Breeding season
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
Nest type
floating platform
Nest description
Large, bulky, floating mass of vegetation anchored to reeds or branches.
Nest height (mean)
0.30 m
Maximum number of successful broods
2
Clutch size (mean)
3-7 days
Clutch size (min)
3
Clutch size (max)
7
Mean egg dimensions (length)
50.00 mm
Mean egg dimensions (width)
34.00 mm
Egg colour
Dull or creamy white dotted and blotched all over with black, purplish-brown and dull violet-grey
Egg laying dates
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
Interval between eggs in a clutch
24-48 hours
Incubation behaviour
shared
Incubation length (mean)
23-26 days
Incubation length (min)
23days
Incubation length (max)
26days
Nestling type
precocial
Age at fledging (mean)
55-60 days
Age at fledging (min)
55days
Age at fledging (max)
60days
Age at independence (mean)
Dependent on parents up to 35 days but stay with family group for until following spring
Age at first breeding (typical)
Unknown
Maximum longevity
Unknown
Maximum dispersal
Unknown in New Zealand, 200-500 km in Australia