We’ll come to the hern later. It’s the coot I’m concerned with here. Have you ever looked at a coot’s feet? Most of the time, if you notice the coot at all, you just see this little black bird with the round white patch on its forehead nipping about over the water, plunging daintily now and then into the depths to come up some distance away from where it disappeared, and you think something like “neat!” and go on to admire the swans and other more spectacular inhabitants of the pool or lake. You don’t often get the chance of inspecting a coot’s feet. But if you’ve ever seen a coot out of water, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
“Feet” is really quite an inadequate expression for the accoutrements in question. Seals and similar aquatic mammals have flippers, which is nice and onomatopoeic – and there ought to be an equally fitting word to describe the appendages on the ends of a coot’s legs. What ducks and swans and geese use to paddle and waddle about on pales into insignificance besides a coot’s waders.
At first glance, the coot gives the impression of being an inconspicuous nonentity. Then you see its feet. It’s as though a country cousin come to be a wallflower at the society ball suddenly turns out to be a champion break-dancer. Totally incongruous, but wow! That’s the feeling you have when you see a coot’s feet. They just don’t fit in with the overall image. Perhaps that’s why coot tend to keep their feet well hidden under the water most of the time. You don’t see a coot floating along with one paddle raised nonchalantly over his back like the swans do. He’d probably capsize if he tried. Or else the wind would fill the surface area like a sail and blow him across the lake in record time.
It’s not just the enormous size of them, either. The shape and the colour are peculiar too. Coot’s footgear is really quite distinctive. No ducklike webbed feet for this aquatic acrobat. Perhaps that’s all that was left on the shelf when it came to handing out feet?
“Sorry, mate, you should have got here earlier. There’s only the rejects from the apprentices’ ‘design-a-foot’ competition left.”
“Oh well, better than nothing, I s’pose. Do I have to do a backward double-flip when I want to get into the water?”
Or maybe they were the booby prize for some primeval water-fowl competition in the early days of evolution. It’s difficult to imagine them evolving naturally on this otherwise inconspicuous little bird.
They look as if the coot had borrowed them from someone else – the dodo perhaps – or like hand-me-downs from a bigger relative who had outgrown them. Or as if his grandmother had knitted them from her own design as a surprise for Christmas, using up all the scraps of left-over wool and deciding to prettify them with a bit of gold bobble-braid. You can almost hear his mother coaxing him into wearing them:
“Come on now, put them on. They’re just like new and there’s years of wear in them yet. What do you mean, they’re too big? You can walk in them, can’t you? Just you get down into that stream and try them out!”
And the coot-child grumpily obeying, then whooping for joy once he’s in the water and finds out how fantastically efficient this unsightly equipment can be, and how well he can swim and dive now. But there’s still this lurking awareness that the other birds might gawp and poke fun, so he stays in the water most of the time and always tries to sit down so he can tuck them underneath himself when he’s on land.
Well, I managed to find a photo of a coot sheepishly showing its feet. They look like this.