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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Endemic to Hawaii, this large, loud, and fiercely territorial aquatic rail is nomadic and capable of adapting to highly modified wetland habitat, including drainage ditches and gulf club ponds. Unfortunately it has suffered great declines because of loss of its wetland habitats across all of the Hawaiian Islands.
Its restricted range is your best clue to identifying this large, dark slate-gray rail. On rare occasions its relative the American Coot is found visiting the islands, but is easily distinguishable by its much smaller, dark maroon frontal shield, which gives it a sharply notched front profile. The Hawaiian Coot's large, bulbous frontal shield varies in hue from white, pale buff, and pale blue to deep blood-red. Although they are capable of flying long distances, they rarely take to the wing.
Distributed across all the main Hawaiian Islands, except Lanai. Thirty concentrations are known and Kauai, Maui and Oahu support 80% of the total population, which is estimated at 2,000-4,000 individuals. Important concentrations occur on Maui at Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge and Kanaha Pond State Bird Sanctuary. Dramatic population declines occurred during the 1900's as a result of habitat loss, invasion of exotic species, land and water pollution and outbreaks of avian botulism.
It can be found inhabiting almost any type of water body, ranging from saline estuaries to golf club ponds. Hawaiian Coots are omnivorous, eating the seeds and leaves of aquatic plants, snails, small fish, tadpoles, crustaceans and insects. They breed below 700 feet in fresh or brackish water up to one meter deep, anchoring their nests to emergent plants.
Destruction of wetland habitat, largely through drainage for cultivation and development, and toxic pesticides and herbicides used in cultivation and on golf courses threaten the future of this species. Outbreaks of deadly avian botulism have caused further mortality.
Hunting has been prohibited since 1939 and the species was federally listed as Endangered in 1970. Measures have been taken, or are underway to protect threatened wetland habitat as sanctuaries, refuges, or under other cooperative legal arrangements through partnerships between U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, and others. The creation of waterfowl refuges has helped conserve key habitat. The Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) on Maui protects an important concentration of the species. On Kauai, the Huleia NWR Refuge and the Hanalei NWR support numbers of Hawaiian Coot as does the James Campbell NWR on Oahu and the Kakahai NWR on Molokai. In locations like the Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge control of introduced predators is an important management tool to increase nest success of Hawaiian Coots and other birds. On Maui, predator control is underway on Kanaha Pond, and although the population is very low and its range restricted, it is currently considered stable.
What Can You Do?
The Endangered Species Act has helped protect the Hawaiian Coot and made it possible to learn critical information about its biology. Audubon continues to work to ensure that this vital legislation is being used to protect our publicly-owned wildlife resources. Check out http://www.audubon.org/campaign/ to learn of the latest news about the Endangered Species Act and how you can help. To learn more about other species protected under this legislation, visit: http://endangered.fws.gov/
U.S. National Wildlife Refuges provide essential habitat for the Hawaiian Coot, and a great number of other species throughout the U.S. and its territories. Unfortunately, the refuge system is often under-funded during the U.S. government's budgeting process. To learn more about how you can help gain much needed funding for U.S. National Wildlife Refuges, visit: http://www.audubon.org/campaign/refuge_report/
Join Hawaii Audubon Society. A chapter of National Audubon, the Hawaii Audubon Society works to protect and educate people about Hawaii's birds. For more information visit http://www.audubon.org/states/hi/
Birdlife International. 2000. Threatened Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
BirdLife International (2006) Species factsheet: Fulica alai, Hawaiian Coot http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/species/index.html?action=SpcHTMDetails.asp&sid=2945&m=0
Ehrlich, P.R., Dobkin, D.S., and D. Wheye. 1992. Birds in Jeopardy. Stanford University, Stanford, CA.
Pratt, H.D., P. L. Bruner, and D. G. Berrett. 1987. The Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
Shallenberger. R.J. 1984. Hawaii's Birds. Hawaii Audubon Society, Honolulu, HA.
Taylor, B. 1998. Rails: A Guide to the Rails, Crakes, Gallinules, and Coots of the World. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.