Strolling down the floating dock, admiring the boats in the marina, we were trailed by an odd blackish waterbird that eyed us brightly as it swam along on the other side of the moored vessels. At a glance it looked like a duck, but after closer examination we saw that it clearly wasn't.

Compared to the familiar mallard duck, this bird was smaller -- a foot long compared to 16 inches for the mallard. It paddled the water with long, slender unwebbed toes and brandished a thick, whitish, blunt-tipped, chicken-like beak instead of the flat, shovel-shaped bill of a mallard. It was an American coot, and it had an agenda: persuading us to give it food.

I finally complied, putting a quarter into the "fish-food" machine and getting a stingy little pile of Cheerios. Hearing the knob of the food machine turn, the coot swam toward us as fast as it could -- not terribly fast, for its unwebbed toes can't propel it forward nearly as fast as a duck can swim. Coming almost within arm's reach of us four staring humans, the coot happily snatched Cheerios one by one from the water's surface no more than a yard away.

The bird's tameness allowed us to study the gradations of black to gray in its plumage and the soft gray and green skin of its legs and elongated feet with the lobes at the ends of the toes. The lobes allow coots to stand and walk on the surface of soft mud in the moist habitats they prefer.

No doubt about it, coots are peculiar. They're not classified as waterfowl but as members of the crane family, along with rail, moorhens and gallinules -- other chicken-like birds found in marshes and lakes. Despite their unassuming appearance, coots are belligerent birds. Even their young are seldom taken by predators due to the powerful defense their parents mount.

Unlike most ducks, coots can't lift off quickly from the water. Instead, they must run across the surface, gaining speed before they become airborne. Like their takeoff, their voices are awkward -- grunting, croaking, squawking calls that resound from the dense growth around their nests and from their roosts at night.

In combination, coots' belligerence, their odd movements and their loud calls have led to a familiar saying: crazy as a coot. From the bird's point of view, however, their behavior is not so bad -- crazy as a fox, maybe.

If you aren't likely to be in habitats where coots are found, you can often see them on television. When golf tournaments are broadcast from coastal areas, watch for humped-looking black birds on the fairways near water hazards -- coots seem to pay little heed to the golfers or the crowds watching them. If the picture is clear and close enough, you'll be able to see the diagnostic stubby white bill.

Calendar

The events below are public, and free unless otherwise noted. Where trip leaders are named, please contact them to confirm arrangements, get directions and let them know you're planning to attend.

n Saturday, Jan. 14 -- Ocean City area full-day field trip, sponsored by Cecil Bird Club. Meet at 6 a.m. in the Dunkin' Donuts parking area at Big Elk Mall. Leader, Sean McCandless, 410-392-3407 or seanmccandless1@comcast.net.

n Every Wednesday -- Bird walk, 8:15 a.m. to 10:15 a.m., at Tyler Arboretum, 515 Painter Road, Media, 610-566-9134. Leader, Tom Reeves; bird walk is free with arboretum admission: $5 for adults and children ages 16 and up; $3 for youngsters ages 3 to 15. No pre-registration required; take binoculars and a bird book.

Frances Hamilton has written about birds in Chester County since 1968. Contact her at birdlady@birdlady.com.

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