As adults, American coots have a drab color scheme, with black bodies and white bills. Their chicks, however, have an aesthetic that’s part drunk friar, part disheveled lion, and part tequila sunrise. Their faces and bald pates are bright red, while their necks are encircled in scruffy yellow-orange plumes.
These garish colors are very strange. Most bird chicks come in dull, camouflaged hues. And while nature is full of animals with elaborate, conspicuous ornamental traits, from the resplendent tails of peacocks to the branching antlers of deer, many of these traits are about sex. They make their bearers more attractive to mates, either because they’re sexy in their own right or because they’re honest signs of health and vigor. So why on Earth would a baby bird be so fancy? It clearly has nothing to do with sex. And as Bruce Lyon and Daizaburo Shizuka from the University of California at Santa Cruz have shown, the garish colors aren’t signs of quality chicks either. They’re the opposite.
The life of a coot chick can be brief and brutal. The parent birds lay six to 12 eggs, but almost always more than they can actually raise. The eggs hatch one by one over the span of a week, and the resulting chicks scramble and compete for their parents’ food and attention. It’s an unforgiving hunger game, which the youngest, smallest ones typically lose, at the cost of their life. About half of the chicks die before they’re a week old. This seemingly wasteful system makes sense for parent coots. They overproduce chicks on the off chance that they can procure a glut of food and raise a larger-than-average family. If they can’t, the surplus chicks will just die off—no harm, no fowl.