Ever heard of an American coot? I hadn’t until I joined a few birder groups and saw photos of the bird, which is has quite a dramatic look. It’s a plump, dark grey bird with a bright white triangular bill, red eyes and a long neck that it likes to bob around a lot, like a chicken. And it has big, green-tinged feet that look a lot like chicken feet. But what’s really odd is that the American coot hangs out in the water a lot, swimming around and feeding on aquatic plants in the company of ducks.
“Chicken duck” would be an appropriate nickname, I think.
I’d never seen an American coot until yesterday, when I took a tip from a friend and visited a bog in Bangor to find the migrating bird. It was still there, swimming around with a group of green-winged teals, little ducks with beautiful green feathers tucked in their wings and, for the males, adorning their heads. The American coot hadn’t moved on yet, but for an unfortunate reason. It appeared that the bird had an injured wing. A number of local birds had already called Avian Haven, a bird rehabilitation facility in Freedom, to see if it could be helped. The Avian Haven staff and volunteers were working on orchestrating a rescue effort.
As I watched the American coot, I met a volunteer with Avian Haven who was watching over the bird with binoculars to see where it would roost for the night. She was also trying to determine the extent of the injury. While the bird was holding the wing off to its side and couldn’t fly, it was at least moving around, dunking its head in the water to eat plants and hopping up on half-submerged trees and old car tires to bask in the sun.
When I really think about wildlife rehabilitation, it’s a hard concept to wrap my mind around. I ask myself: Is it really worth the time and money to save one bird? A bird that isn’t even endangered? When saving that individual won’t even make a dent in the population of that species?
I stood there, watching the American coot as the sun slowly sank behind the trees, thinking about how much trouble it would be in when the bog soon iced over and it couldn’t fly to a warmer place. I absolutely wanted to save it.
And I wasn’t the only one. Avian Haven wanted to save it, too. And so I thought back to about a year ago, when I wrote a story about wildlife rehabbers in the state for the BDN Maine Outdoors. When writing the story, I met with a number of these rehabbers and I asked them, why do you do this work? Why raise an orphaned baby squirrel whose mother was flattened by a vehicle? Why save a duck that’s been tangled in fishing line?
The wildlife rehabbers had different, yet similar, replies. They do it because the vast majority of the injuries they see are caused by humans. Therefore, it’s our job to do what we can to help. It all comes down to the Golden Rule: If you break it, admit it. And if you can’t fix it, find someone who can.
Also, by helping these individual animals, we can learn more about the species and help others learn more (and therefore, care more) through social media. Avian Haven has an extremely active and popular Facebook page on which they share with the public their successes and failures, with photos and stories about the injured birds.
Will it be a disaster if the American coot in Bangor dies? If people simply can’t save it? No. But I’m rooting for it to be rescued, rehabilitated and released back into the wild.
Here are a few photos I took between 3:15 and 4:30 yesterday at the bog. They include green-winged teals (including males, which was a first for me); a migrating Gadwell duck (also a first for me); mallards; a group of stately hooded mergansers (five females and one male); and of course, the American coot.