“The whole world is a series of miracles, but we’re so used to them we call them ordinary things.”
― Hans Christian Andersen

American Coot chicks are the craziest, most unexpected and goofiest looking baby birds on the planet. The Atlantic magazine called them, “part drunk friar, part disheveled lion, and part tequila sunrise.” Most other chicks are camouflaged in dull colors and patterns to hide them from predators. Not so, the coot! They are so “ugly” that they are laughably cute and fun to watch.

The Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of “The Ugly Duckling” naturally comes to mind. (Although coots are not ducks.) As I recall, its themes spoke to issues of not fitting in, sticking out as different, being rejected and unwelcome, loneliness and isolation. Ouch, pretty universal feelings, for both children and adults. In the end, however, the ugly duckling discovers who he really is – a swan! – and is welcomed home when he stumbles into a flock of swans after a lonely winter. You can interpret this fable on many levels including exposing prejudice to what is different, how we long to belong, finding our true identity, trusting our inner beauty to blossom, and more. It is said that Hans Christian Anderson felt himself to be a recovered ugly duckling.

These coot “ugly ducklings” already belong and are fed and protected by their much larger attentive parents. They transform as well, not into swans, but into adult coots who are a sleek black with a white beak and red eyes. When I got too close to one of the chicks, a parent charged me, part swimming, part flying aggressively across the water’s surface to scare me. That was a first.

As I looked into coot breeding I came across a complex story, part theory really, about why the chicks stand out like they do. Female coots will lay about ten eggs but the parents are unable to feed that many babies, so within a week of hatching about usually half of the new chicks will die. (The females will also lay a few eggs in other coot’s nest!) After that first week of very tough love, the remaining chicks are doted over. Each parent takes responsibility for half the remaining chicks, choosing one as a favorite. This is usually the smallest, most brightly colored baby. They put extra effort into feeding it to bring it’s weight up. So the most garishly colored you are, the more food and attention you get! This strategy must work since coots are one of the most common and widespread water birds.

I saw my first coot chicks last year in Lander, Wyoming and then again just a couple days ago in Sedona, Arizona. Photos are from both sightings.

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