Northwest Nature Notes
Coots are often thought to be waterfowl (i.e., a duck), but they are not. They are in the rail family, in the same avian order as cranes. These birds are only distantly related to waterfowl.
They are rails that look like ducks because, over evolutionary time, they have come out of the marshes where rails are common and have become adapted morphologically and behaviorally for living a duck’s life. They swim like a duck and dive like a duck, but admittedly they don’t quack like a duck. The chicken-like bill is quite different from that of a duck. Ducks have sieve-like lamellae on the edges of their bill to allow a sort of filter-feeding, while coots just grab their prey items and swallow them.
To be able to swim well, coots have evolved lobed toes, much like those of grebes. Gallinules and moorhens, which are also rails and look much like coots, haven’t evolved the lobes, and they are rather intermediate between rails and coots, able to swim with their long toes even though they aren’t webbed or even lobed. Coots forage at the surface, dip below it somewhat as ducks do, and dive underwater in deeper water. They don't stay down very long, popping up like a cork after a brief visit to the nearest vegetation.
Coots breed locally in the Puget Sound area but more commonly in the dry interior, where they are on most freshwater wetlands. They prefer ponds and lakes.