Raoli Lake was covered by an evening mist, but I could still see specks of black on the water’s surface and hear distinctive loud “kowks”. “Yeh yahin rehte hain” (They are resident here), said my driver Pukhraj, as he drove up a narrow road leading up to the Raoli forest rest house in Rajasthan’s Ajmer district.
I discovered the following morning that the rest house offered a spectacular view of the lake, which hosts a variety of aquatic birds. As the morning mist lifted, the black specks became clearer. “Common coots. I think there must be around 300 here,” said our guide Dr Sumit Dookia.
The bird’s prominent frontal white shield, a bald patch on its slate-black head, is what one notices first while observing these birds. I later discovered that the phrase “as bald as a coot” dates back to 1430.
Common coots (Fulica atra) belong to a family of birds known as Rallidae, and live across Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. Usually found on freshwater lakes and ponds, these birds are not as secretive as other members of the Rail family. They prefer shallow waters with deeper areas nearby in which to forage.
In a motion reminiscent of ballroom dancing, coverts of coots glided effortlessly over the lake, gently bobbing their heads as they swam. Ducks and grebes mingled with them. Occasionally, a flock would skim across the water, their partially-webbed toes leaving a trail on the surface. Though these coots are reluctant fliers, sometimes lone individuals would suddenly take off, fly low over the lake, and land smack in the middle of another flock. This abrupt and seemingly irrational behaviour, involved going from peaceful foraging to sudden flight, increase in speed, and change in direction — for no apparent reason. It explained why old men behaving in an unusual manner are sometimes referred to as “old coots”. Despite this behaviour, coots never crash into each other, though they will aggressively peck another bird if it comes too close for comfort. And when they do fly, coots are surprisingly good fliers; capable of covering long distances is search of suitable waterbodies.
Common coots feed primarily on underwater vegetation, and may supplement their diet with insects, worms, and fish. In the manner of free divers who take deep breaths before plunging into the ocean, I saw coots taking little jumps before diving into the seven- to eight-foot-deep lake, and resurfacing just as I finished counting to 10. They broke up the plant matter they’d brought to the surface, and seemed to be rinsing it before consuming it.
They’d also ruffle their feathers as they resurfaced, to roll off any droplets of water. A combination of the structure of their feathers and preening oils ensures that the birds do not drench their wings even when they go underwater.
In India, common coots breed between May and September, during which time they become highly territorial. Monogamous bird pairs build nests using reeds and grasses atop floating vegetation in shallow water. A clutch may have up to 12 chicks, with bald red heads and orange-yellow fuzz on the face and neck. Few survive to adulthood, most succumbing to predation and starvation. Since the parents can’t find sufficient food for all the chicks, they favour the larger ones that hatch first. The smaller chicks that were ignored, but managed to survive, are taken care of later. Females are also known to lay an egg or two in another coot’s nest. With so much competition for food, the birds will peck at the imposter chicks and even drown them sometimes.
As the sun set over Raoli Lake, the cacophony of the birds settling, on the water and on nearby trees, for the night grew. Some coots had left, some had stayed. I pondered over how easy it must have been for colonial hunters to shoot them from the same spot I was standing at, back when waterfowl was fair game. Now, it is of course the destruction of their wetland habitats that threaten their survival.
“Chandni raat mai aur bhi ruk jaate hai (more stay on moonlit nights),” Pukhraj tells. What a spectacle that must be — 300 coots, dressed impeccably in black tuxedos, resting on a shimmering lake in the moonlight.