Environment

Bird Totems of Venice: The American Coot

By Krista Schwimmer
Winter is one of my favorite times to walk along the beach or to hang out on the Venice Pier. The light that reflects back from the ocean waters is often so dream like that I find myself wanting only to spend more and more time simply gazing, an ancient soothsayer scanning water for prophecy. The rewards are often great: seals, dolphins, and even a whale now and then swim by, breaking through the hypnotizing waters to snatch my soul momentarily. Birds, too, are part of this parade of paradise. One such bird, though more commonly spotted along the canals and wetlands, is the American Coot.
There is no mistaking these short winged birds with their bobbing heads. Their white, frontal shields contrast well with their black plumage, making them easy to spot from a distance. The saying, “as bald as a coot,” comes from this particular characteristic. Often found with ducks, but classed in a different family and order, coots forage by diving to the bottom of ponds, marshes, coastal bays and inlets, as well as by grazing on the land near the shore. They are even known to steal from other diving birds!
Recently, however, I discovered another interesting physical characteristic of the American Coot. I was walking along the canals, south of Washington Boulevard, when I spotted a group of coots, known as a covert. As one of them walked up to the shore, I noticed its surprising legs and feet. From leg to toe, they were pea green in color. The feet were partially webbed with separated toes, known as fissipalmate feet. On top of it, they seemed disproportionately large. The lobed toes help the bird to run, as well as forage on the top of vegetation in the marshes. Their feet also are made to withstand higher temperatures than a webbed version.
There are eleven known species of coot, many residing in South America. They are omnivorous, eating primarily plant material but also small animals and eggs. Although they lay 8 to 10 pinkish eggs spotted with brown, they may only raise two of them. One of the coot’s more disturbing behaviors is around brooding. If a hatch-ling is found in a coot’s nest that is from a different coot, the parent will violently kill this baby bird, a phenomenon called brood parasitism. Oddly, coots will do this only to other coots, and not other bird species.
When working with any bird as a totem, there are different ways to decipher the meaning. First, look at the known behavior of the bird. For instance, in the case of the coot, one of its characteristics is to dive to the bottom and forage. Water often symbolizes feelings. So, if you see the coot diving under the water, it can mean it is good for you to take the time to explore your feelings. Another valuable way to work with any totem is to explore the ancient tales and mythologies associated with the creature. In the case of the coot, there is a wonderful Ojibwa legend that Valerie Connors recounts called “Waynaboozhoo and the Great Flood.”
In this tale, the creator sends a great flood to purify the earth because men and women had lost respect for one another. A lone man named Waynaboozhoo survives. He builds a raft and shares it with other animals.
The water, however, does not recede on its own. So, Waynaboozhoo asks first a loon, then a beaver to dive deeply to fetch mud from the Old World. Neither succeed. A coot named Aajigade manages to retrieve a small lump of mud, but dies as a result. Luckily, Waynaboozhoo brings Aajigade back to life. Out of this mud, the New World is created, then placed on the back of Mikinaak, the snapping turtle. At one point in the story, the other animals laugh when they discover that Aajigade thinks he is going to save the day. The coot, however, pays no heed to their mockery. This reminds us that serving a greater cause in life can give us great faith and determination. Never let anyone underestimate your abilities!
Becoming kin to a bird, however, means understanding not only the bird itself, but its habitat, its prey, and even its predators. For instance, in the case of the coot, studying fox, coyote, skunk, crow, owl, eagle, alligator or gull can give you meaningful insights. Look especially at any predator that naturally appears in your life alongside the appearance of coot.
Kinship implies a give and take. A really fun way to give back to all birds is to participate in the next “Great Backyard Bird Count” (GBBC) from February 13 – 16, 2015. Hatched in 1998 by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, the GBBC is the “first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real-time”. In 2014, the count included 135 countries. 17.7 million birds from 4,296 species were counted then. Our hero, the American Coot, showed up #8 in the “10 most numerous birds in 2014” with a count of 454,169. To participate, simply go to their website, http://www.birdcount.org, register, and download the instructions.
Like many birds, the coot is unfairly judged. Take, for instance, the phrase, “old coot.” The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang defines a coot as “a harmless simpleton, especially an old one.” The more I have studied and lived with birds, the more I find that no matter the species, they all have intelligence. More likely than not, those hunters in Louisiana, California, Florida, Wisconsin, and Minnesota that kill these birds for sport are the true simpletons. How else can one explain the wanton killing of innocent creatures?
So, next time someone calls you a “crazy old coot,” don’t let it get you down. In a world where police get away with murder, and developers push out the elderly, the time is long overdue to consider just what constitutes intelligence anyway.

Sources: http://www.10000birds.com; http://www.audubon.org; http://www.birdcount.org;
http://www.bioweb.uwlax.edu/bio203/2010/spohnhol_cait/facts.htm;
http://www.uwosh.edu/coehs/cmagproject/ethnomath/legend/legend9.htm

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