Dicromantispa interrupta

Dicromantispa interrupta

Friday, February 22, 2008

Fear and loathing in coots

I live beside Orange Lake in Marion County, Florida, home to hundreds of sandhill cranes, thousands of ringneck ducks, scaup and coots, and every species of wading bird that lives in this part of the northern Peninsula. These will provide substance for future musings, but today I write about a particular intraspecific commotion that occurs some evenings around dusk.

About a half-hour before dark, a great horned owl will fly out of the woods and perch atop a snag on the edge of the wide marsh that surrounds the lake. It will sit and watch the coots floating out on the water in maybe 50 small rafts. As the owl sits and watches them, the coots get nervous and mill around, but there is no place for them to go. There are owls around all the lakes.

About the only thing a coot can do to “protect” itself is to band up with others to lessen the chances that it will get taken by the formidable predator. Thus, shortly the 50 flocks become 40.

Then a pair of bigmouth (red-shouldered) hawks nesting nearby will come out of the brush and hassle the owl, diving and screaming angrily. The owl watches them but seems unperturbed for the most part. Well, the coots just see this as two more predators, and they get even more nervous, and soon the 40 flocks become 30.

All this activity is not lost on the lake’s fish crows. They join this avian community presumably to try to take advantage of whatever meat that the owl cannot retrieve. The crows land on a bunch of dispersed stobs rising out of the water – I don’t know if they are dead buttonbush or coastal plain willow stems – and clash with each other for the best positions. Of course, the coots become even more agitated by this, so the 30 flocks become 20.

Then darkness and quiet falls over the lake and I can’t tell what happens next, but I’m sure it’s not good for the coots.

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