Select Page

Coots and moorhens are freshwater birds, but unlike ducks, they spend much of their time feeding on land, running about on their disproportionately long feet. In the breeding season, both species become very aggressive in defense of their territories, which can lead to problems.

Coots and moorhens often share the same territory, which can cause aggressive displays and fights. Coots are larger than moorhens and often come out as winners. When one will not back down, both the female and male join in to protect or win a territory.

If you want to know more about how these birds get along, please read on.


The coot and the moorhen, close relatives belonging to the rail family, are common and widely distributed. The coot is all black, with a white shield and a faint whitish wing bar above its white bill. Its legs are greenish.

The moorhen is brown-black, tending to grey on the sides and underparts. Its shield, smaller than that of the coot, is bright red, as is its bill. There is a whitish bar down the flanks, and the area under the tail is also pure white. Its legs are green.

Both coots and moorhens can become easily accustomed to man. Moorhens will breed beside the smallest farm or village pond and appear throughout the year on lakes in city and town center parks.

At a distance, both species can be confused with ducks. The moorhen is smaller than most ducks and can be seen raising its tail out of the water and moving its head backward and forwards as it swims. The coot has a rounded outline, easy to spot when around straight-backed ducks. Once you see the short, pointed bill, you can easily distinguish both birds from the broad-billed ducks.

Do you know where birds go when it storms? Find out here

Territory and Breeding

During the breeding season, coots and moorhens defend territories against others of their own species. The area of the territories varies greatly, but the coot usually defends a much larger space (up to an acre or more) than the moorhen. Some moorhen territories may be less than 100 square metres (123 sq yards) in size. The territories provide all that the pair needs regarding food and nest sites.

The nests of coots and moorhens are built of dead leaves and the stems of rushes and other water plants. They are often placed in shallow water among concealing vegetation, sometimes anchored to the bottom, but often just floating on the water.

Moorhens, more than coots, also build on dry land, occasionally a little way off the ground in thick bushes. A shallow cup at the top of the nest is lined with green leaves and finer material. Both species lay between six and nine pale buff eggs that are liberally spotted with brown.

Young coots and moorhens can walk and swim within a few hours of hatching. However, moorhen chicks tend to stay close to the nest for the first few days, returning to it to be brooded by the parents at night or in cold, wet weather.

Around the time of hatching, the adult male coot builds one or two platforms within the breeding territory. These are similar to the nest but flatter on top and have one or more ramps leading up from the water. The young coots are brought to these platforms and brooded there rather than in the nest.

The young of both species are blackish, with reddish heads. In the case of the coot, this coloring comes from the tips of the down plumules, but on the moorhen, the head is bare, and you can see the red skin.

This color also extends to the bills and tiny shields of the young of both species. The bright color in the middle of the reddish head is a target area for the parents feeding the chick. The reddish color fades as the young grow and begin to feed themselves.

Threats and Aggression

In defending their territories, both species become aggressive, displaying vigorously at other birds intruding birds and often fighting with them.

The white frontal shield of the coot and the red shield of the moorhen is the signal of aggression. The bird holds its head low over the water, with its neck outstretched, then fluffs its plumage and raises its wings. This not only makes the bird look larger but the shield presents itself better against a backdrop of black feathers.

Sometimes the long claws lock, and they tumble around, making the bird look larger, even rolling into the water. Very often the mates will join in, and soon four birds can be seen rolling and tumbling about in a mass of feathers.

Fights can typically end in two ways, with one bird giving way and chased off, or both deciding that it is best to stop fighting. Both will back off slowly but will attack again with the slightest aggression.

The coot will show off its frontal shield first and will raise its tail, swinging it around. When aggression is shown, the females join in as well, sometimes in a four-way fight, but often the males will fight each other, as will the females.

Aggression is important to establish a large territory, which is needed for both breeding and feeding. Although the fights can be aggressive, damage is quite rare, with the older, larger birds normally winning.

Because many moorhens and coots return to the same territories every year, these battles are important to win.

Moorhens and coots will occasionally fight for territory, but the larger coot normally comes off best.

Breeding and Help

The coot normally rears just one brood of young in the year, but the moorhen often manages to raise two, sometimes even three. In nearly all other species of birds that raise a second brood, the first brood youngsters move or are driven, away from the nesting area.

In the case of the moorhen, however, the young of the first brood help to rear the next lot of chicks. Occasionally they may help to incubate the eggs but typically assist in the feeding of the chicks after hatching.

It is advantageous for the parents to have help in finding food and giving it to their chicks, but it does also mean that the territory has to be large enough for all the birds, including parents, first brood young, and second brood young to be able to live and feed within it.



Water is an attractive habitat for birds as it is fairly safe from land predators such as cats and foxes, and can provide a great diversity of food. To help them swim, the feet of water birds are often lobed, as in coots and grebes, or webbed like ducks and gulls.

Birds that spend most of their time on water need warm, waterproof plumage. A thick layer of down keeps out the cold and traps air which helps the birds float. The down is covered by long overlapping body feathers that prevent water from penetrating.

To keep the feather waterproof, the birds must oil them regularly from a special oil gland situated at the base of the tail. The birds rub the oil into their feathers with the bill while preening. Grebes do this after each feeding session, rolling over in the water to oil the feathers on the belly.

Well-kept feathers are unwettable; water forms droplets on the oily surface and quickly runs away. Land birds also have oil glands, but their feathers are rainproof only, not completely waterproof.


Moorhens are omnivorous birds, eating a wide variety of plant leaves, stems, and seeds, as well as mollusks, worms, and larvae of many different freshwater invertebrates. They feed on land as much as on the water. When swimming, they often dip their heads underwater, and even upend, but only occasionally dive.

Coots, on the other hand, dive quite competently, first pressing the air out of their plumage and making a little upward and down only about 90 or 120cm (3-4ft), but greater depths of 4.5m (15ft) or more, have been recorded.

Coots are omnivorous, like moorhens, but tend to eat mostly plants. They graze short vegetation on land and pluck aquatic plants growing in and under the water.