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Wednesday, Apr 18 2012 08:59 AM

Not so 'coot' birds plague golf courses

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Coots roam the Horse Thief Golf Course in Stallion Springs. The protected bird is a nuisance ag golf courses throughout California as well as locally. Photo by Ed Gordon

Coots hiding in the lake at Horse Thief Golf Course in Stallion Springs. Photo by Ed Gordon

Coots, a duck like waterfowl, are at war with golfers. Coots mostly feed on plants and grasses and a golf course with its trimmed grass and water hazards makes a perfect place for them live. Locally, a large flock or raft has set up camp at Horse Thief Golf Club in Stallion Springs. Coots are often mistaken for ducks, when actually they are a medium-sized water bird that is a member of the rail family. These birds have a mostly black body and a distinct white beak with a black mark near the tip.

The coot's beak is shaped more like the triangle of a chicken's beak, rather than the flat shape of a duck's bill. The pointed beak makes it easy for the birds to pick at the grass, pulling it out or cutting it right at ground level destroying greens and fairways. American coots are excellent swimmers and divers, and enjoy a meal of various aquatic plants from the lake. They are often found in large flocks which add to the destruction and their droppings dirty lakes and leave messy turf underfoot.

The way in which their heads bob when they walk or swim has also earned them the name "marsh hen" or "mud hen." They tend to have short, rounded wings and are weak fliers. Coots can walk and run vigorously on strong legs, and have long toes that are well adapted to soft, uneven surfaces. Even though the American Coot swims like a duck, they do not have webbed feet -- their toes have lobes on the sides of each segment

Golf course management in many locations have taken to chasing the birds with golf carts and dogs to prevent them from eating the grass. At Horse Thief, the birds have become so accustomed to the carts that they the flock just separates to let the carts through, then goes right back to the business of munching on the grass.

Coots are protected by the Migratory Bird Act. Although they are not listed as endangered, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife issues permits to help eradicate the birds, but it takes months to obtain the permit.

Even then the permit can be limited to as few as 300 birds a year -- a small amount compared to the average size of the flocks. It is estimated that as many as 460,000 of the birds winter in California and Nevada each year.

Coots hiding in the lake at Horse Thief Golf Course in Stallion Springs.

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