Mussel-eaters

coot familyNewmillerdam, edge of lake near the boathouse, early June:

A PARENT COOT is introducing its brood to a new food; fresh shellfish. It dives and comes up with a small nutlike object which I soon realise is a freshwater mussel.

The young chicks are ‘tween-age’, no longer fluffy little infants with bright markings on their head and not yet in the sober black and grey ‘school uniform’ of older chicks. They’ve still got a sparse punkish ginger top knot while their bills, once bright red, have now faded to a fleshy pink, like lean bacon.

The parent turns the small shell in its beak before presenting the morsel to a youngster then dives again and in seconds pops back up with another bite-sized mussel.

After turning it around in in its beak it presents this reluctant to open mollusc to one of the chicks. The chick fumbles with it and soon drops it and another chick picks it up but also struggles with it.

The parent takes it back and gives it a few more turns in its beak, returning it to the youngster which makes an extra effort and, with some difficulty, swallows it whole.

It reminds me of the sort of scene you might get in a restaurant where a parent is trying to show their children the way to tackle some unfamiliar food. I still remember the steaming tureen of mussels, some of them still flapping their valves that was brought to the table when we were on a family holiday in an old-fashioned seaside resort in France. We were equally clueless about how we should tackle them.

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