Our binoculars lingered long on a Coot as we scanned the bird-jamboree at Baikka Beel from the rooftop of its modest Interpretation Centre. That Coot stood alone in shallow water near the high ground recently vacated by squatters. The other Coots were busy diving to feed on the underwater plants.
The early hours of a cool day should be a good time for Coots to go for their breakfast laid at the bottom of Baikka Beel. We did not know why, on a fine morning like that a Coot should forsake the diving flock and sulk alone on the bank. We were worried that the lonely Coot was indisposed and too weak to dive.
But we were wrong. The Coot with keen red eyes looked happily around, shook its rounded wings vigorously and lowered its curvaceous neck to launch a long session of preening. The bird was obviously strong and keen on its upkeep after slugging an ample breakfast ahead of the others still working for food.
The Coot takes a small leap to dive with force when it needs to go deep to fetch food. Usually, Coots do not stay long underwater; instead, they dive again and again to get enough food. The repeated dives keep the Coots well-fed and the water oxygenated. A beel with flocks of Coots is, therefore, a healthy place.
Usually, we see Coots floating in flocks and rarely find one standing alone on the bank. Water is a relatively safer place than the shore for the Coots, especially in Bangladesh. Water keeps the crowd of people and their dogs, cats, etcetera, at bay. Moreover, in water, the Coot can also dive to thwart aerial attacks from Harriers.
A Coot can run away from danger in water; but not on the ground. It has learnt to run only on water. With a heavy body and two short wings, the Coot has to undertake an extended take-off run to be airborne. With its lobed feet, the Coot can sprint on the water very well; but not at all on any hard surface.
A flock of Coots sprinting on water is not a rare spectacle at Baikka Beel and many other water bodies of Bangladesh. Running is the fastest way the Coots can move from one part of a beel to another. In all probability the Coots' astounding ability to run on water would make even Lord Jesus envious.
The Coot appears to struggle to be airborne after its prolonged sprint on the water. But once in the air, it seems to fly on without much of a sweat. Its large lobed feet extend beyond the tiny tail and act as its aerial control gears. The Coot, however, has to flap its wings continuously to keep its bulky body up in the air.
That does not at all mean that the Coots are afraid of long-distance migration. From their breeding grounds in northern Asia and Europe, they fly to Bangladesh and many wetlands of southern Asia and Europe as well as Africa in winter. They have also managed to colonise New Zealand recently.
In Bangla the Coot was once called 'Jal-Kukkut' meaning 'water-chicken'; seemingly, after the ancient Vedic word 'Kukkut', which meant 'chicken'. We do not know if the Coot's name 'Coote' in Old English and 'Coet' in German were mere copies of the word 'Kukkut'. After all, the Vedas were not copyrighted.
The Coot has very different names in the Indian languages today. For example, the Coot is called Dasari, Aari and Aad in Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati, respectively. The people of Bangladesh today simply call the bird 'Kut' by shortening the Jal-Kukkut of the olden days. Quite usefully, it sounds no different from English 'Coot'.
We also do not know how on earth 'Coot' became the surname of respectable families in the ancient Anglo-Saxon culture of Britain. We know that the surname Coot did mean 'Coot the bird' since the Coats of Arms of those families invariably depicted a few robust Coots standing boldly or flying vigorously.
'Bald as a coot' is by far the most widely used English phrase connected with this bird. The white frontal shield covering part of the Coot's head can be seen as a bald patch. The fifteenth-century English lyrical poet John Lydgate was the originator of the phrase. His five-volume tome titled 'Chronicle of Troy' had the following enduring line:
'And yet he was as bald as is a coote.'
Coot does not always connote something powerful and respectable, especially in the USA. Slangs like 'a silly coot', 'drunk as a coot' and 'crazy as a coot' are common among the 'English' speaking people of the new world. The plethora of those slang terms is explained by the fact that most of the ten species of Coots of the world live in the Americas.
We have only a single species of Coot which is appropriately called the Common Coot. It had been very common here. Tens of thousands of Coots were counted every January by teams surveying water-birds in Bangladesh. Another five decades before the number must have been hundreds of thousands.
The Coots are still living in the wetlands of Bangladesh in winter; but their number is dwindling. In the rivers and the Padma-Jamuna estuary, their numbers have been falling precipitously. Instead of a thousand we are now quite content to see a hundred Coots in a sanctuary like Baikka Beel.
Only a few beels in the haors of northeast Bangladesh are where we can still see a few larger flocks of Coots. Even there, the decline in their population has been noted. That is not at all a very happy state of affairs. It will be a sad day when the Common Coot can be found in four continents but not in Bangladesh.
Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam. First Published in The Business Standard.
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