Lake Osakis wore a black veil of birdlife – a coating of coots.
Despite many childhood visits to the Schmidt cabin on Lake Osakis, I couldn’t recall seeing an American Coot, a secretive, nomadic, aquatic bird with a hen-like black body, red eyes, lobed feet, and a white beak.
Coots are common birds, so common that many view them as pests.
From the town boat landing coots were visible as far as the eye could see, a scene straight from Hitchcock's old movie The Birds.
Little is known about their migratory habits, but when the weather turns cold the coots will suddenly disappear from Osakis to plague another, warmer locale.
Until next year.
We asked about these birds at Antiques Osakis, just one of the large antique stores downtown, with two floors of thoughtfully arranged displays including a set of bobber lights I wish I’d bought for a fishing fanatic.
“We don’t like coots,” the owner said while writing up my bill for embroidered vintage pillowcases and the complete set of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon series on cassette for $5. “They taste nasty.”
Osakis is a fun destination if you like to fossick at such places, followed by a little lunch at one of its bars or cafes.
We sampled homemade potato soup, club sandwiches, and root beer floats at the O-Town Tavern in Main Street, then literally rolled ourselves past the shops, past the lake with its coating of coots, and past the Wobegon trailhead (the last on this final leg of the Trail), rejoining I-94 for a relaxed drive back to Stearns County.
Throughout our day in Osakis, the antique store’s purveyors, other residents, and Dr Google shared their wisdom about the American Coot:
- They don’t taste great, at least to Osakians, though in Louisiana they have long been used in gumbo.
- They can be aggressive and territorial to one another and to other creatures, including humans, especially in breeding season.
- They are plant eaters and also consume worms, leeches, insects, tadpoles, small fish, and the eggs of other birds. Opportunistic feeders, coots eat what is available.
- Because they have low culinary value, the coot doesn’t appeal to hunters, hence their unbridled numbers at Lake Osakis and across the country. Varieties of coot are prolific worldwide.
- Their abundance means coots are unprotected, but they have protected status under the Migratory Bird Act 1918.
- Migrating mostly at night, they can arrive suddenly – an empty freshwater marsh or lake one day, a commotion or swarm the next.
- A group of coots is called a commotion due to their large noisy gatherings.
- Central and lower Minnesota are coot breeding grounds.
- This ungainly bird takes flight by skittering on top of the water before leaping skywards.
- A coot can be a dirty fighter, using its powerful legs and beak to push an opponent underwater. Some fights involve three birds, if the mate of one contender joins a scuffle.
- Young coots are known as cooties.
- The coot call is not melodic: listen for grunting, croaking, and scratchy squawking noises.
- A commotion of coots = considerable crap. Too many coots create public health hazards in cemeteries, golf clubs, parks, and other gathering places, with poop collecting on shoes, mower blades, and surfaces.
- You can learn more about these tough, adaptable birds at Audubon.org
Hunter Gary Koehler says coots taste good if the right parts and seasonings are used:
Breast out the bird and remove all fat and silver membrane. Place the meat in a skillet with oil, onions, mushrooms, and garlic, and sauté the ingredients, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.
“This is not necessarily an endorsement, but rather basic instruction.”GARY KOEHLER
Photo JakeOLimb, istockphoto