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Willet

Tringa semipalmata ORDER: CHARADRIIFORMES FAMILY: SCOLOPACIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Piercing calls and distinctive wing markings make the otherwise subdued Willet one of our most conspicuous large shorebirds. Whether in mottled brown breeding plumage or gray winter colors, Willets in flight reveal a bold white and black stripe running the length of each wing. These long-legged, straight-billed shorebirds feed along beaches, mudflats, and rocky shores. Willets are common on most of our coastline—learn to recognize them and they’ll make a useful stepping-stone to identifying other shorebirds.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
13–16.1 in
33–41 cm
Wingspan
27.6 in
70 cm
Weight
7.1–11.6 oz
200–330 g
Relative Size
A large shorebird with a pigeon-sized body on long legs
Other Names
  • Chevalier semipalmé (French)
  • Playero pihuiuí (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Willets breeding in the interior of the West differ from the Atlantic Coastal form in ecology, shape, and subtly in calls. Western Willets breed in freshwater habitats, and are slightly larger and paler gray. Eastern Willets have stouter bills and more barring on their chest and back. The difference in pitch between the calls of the two subspecies is very difficult for a person to detect, but the birds can hear the difference and respond more strongly to recorded calls of their own type.
  • Although both parents incubate the eggs, only the male Willet spends the night on the nest.
  • Willets and other shorebirds were once a popular food. In his famous Birds of America accounts, John James Audubon wrote that Willet eggs were tasty and the young “grow rapidly, become fat and juicy, and by the time they are able to fly, afford excellent food.” By the early 1900s, Willets had almost vanished north of Virginia. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 banned market hunting and marked the start of the Willet’s comeback.
  • Like Killdeer, Willets will pretend to be disabled by a broken wing in order to draw attention to themselves and lure predators away from their eggs or chicks.
  • Because they find prey using the sensitive tips of their bills, and not just eyesight, Willets can feed both during the day and at night.
  • The oldest known Willet in North America was 10 years, 3 months old.

Habitat


Shore-line

Along both seacoasts, Willets inhabit open beaches, bayshores, marshes, mudflats, and rocky coastal zones. Their widespread wintering range makes them one of the easiest shorebirds to spot. During the breeding season, western Willets occur far inland, where they nest near marshes and other wetlands, prairie pothole ponds, and wet fields. Eastern birds seek saltmarshes, barrier islands, and barrier beaches for breeding.

Food


Small Animals

Western Willets eat a variety of aquatic beetles on their freshwater feeding grounds, along with fish and spiders. In winter, Willets eat small crabs, worms, clams, and other invertebrates from saltwater marshes and along open coastlines. Eastern Willets also take fiddler and mole crabs.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
4 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
1.9–2.4 in
4.9–6.2 cm
Egg Width
1.3–1.6 in
3.4–4 cm
Incubation Period
22–29 days
Nestling Period
1–2 days
Egg Description
Greenish or brownish, with bold, irregular dark brown spots.
Condition at Hatching
Eyes open, mobile, covered in buff or gray down, able to peck at vegetation.
Nest Description

The male Willet initiates nest building by scraping out a small depression with his feet and breast in the grass, on beach sand, or on bare ground. If nesting in grass, the female then pulls in surrounding vegetation to hide the nest site, lining the grass nest cup with finer grasses and pebbles. If built on bare ground, the birds bring grass from a distance to line the scrape. The finished nest is just over 6 inches across and 2 inches deep.

Nest Placement

Ground

Western birds nest inland on the ground along pond edges and other seasonal wetlands, or on raised sites near water, often in native grasslands. In the Great Basin, nests are often built at the edge of sagebrush near ponds. In the East, Willets nest in cordgrass, saltgrass, and beachgrass near saltmarshes and on sand dunes, and on bare ground or in short vegetation sheltered by barrier dunes. A pair searches for nest sites together, typically with the male leading the female through the habitat and making trial scrapes for the female to evaluate.

Behavior


Probing

Feeding both during the day and at night, Willets take most of their prey from the surface, using their sensitive bill tip to grab up worms, snails, and insects. They also probe for sand crabs and other prey on mudflats and beaches, and take shellfish and small fiddler crabs from rocky shorelines. You’ll usually see them on wetted shorelines or wading close to the water’s edge, but occasionally Willets paddle in shallow waters to chase down small fish and crabs. In spring, the pill-will-willet flight call marks the arrival of Willets on the breeding grounds. Willet pairs often remain together for several years and return to the same nest sites. Males loudly defend their nesting and feeding territories, challenging their neighbors with a ritualized walk along territorial boundaries that can escalate into physical attacks. Both parents incubate the eggs and teach the young to feed. The female Willet departs the nest site up to two weeks ahead of the male, leaving her mate to finish raising the chicks.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Willets are common though there was a small decline in populations between 1966 and 2010, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. They can be found wintering on both coasts of the U.S. and in Mexico, and move to inland areas of the U.S. and Canada as well as to the N.E. coast of the U.S during the breeding season. The conversion of native grasslands and wetlands to agricultural use has decreased the amount of suitable breeding territory for the western subspecies. Coastal development in California has also degraded potential wintering sites for this population. Both adults and fledglings are also vulnerable to collisions with power lines built through wetland breeding sites. Willets were widely hunted for food in the nineteenth century; it took passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918 to begin the Willet’s comeback to its present numbers.

Credits

  • Lowther, P. E., H. D. Douglass III, and C. L. Gratto-Trevor. 2001. Willet (Catoptrophorus semipalmatus). In The Birds of North America, No. 579 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America Online, Ithaca, New York.
  • Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder’s Handbook. Simon & Schuster Inc., New York.
  • Hayman, P., J. Marchant and T. Prater. 1986. Shorebirds: An Identification Guide to the Waders of the World. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.
  • O’Brien, M., R. Crossley, and K. Karlson. 2006. The Shorebird Guide. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
  • Peterson, R. T. 2008. Field Guide to Birds of North America. Houghton Mifflin Co.
  • Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York
  • USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2012. North American Breeding Bird Survey 1966–2010 analysis.

Range Map Help

Willet Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Short- to long-distance nocturnal migrant. Western birds leave coastal wintering grounds from March–May. Eastern birds move north starting in March, arriving on the breeding grounds April–May. Willets leave their breeding sites as early as June, among the earliest departures of any North American sandpiper.

Find This Bird

In winter, Willets are easy to spot feeding along the water’s edge. They’re one of the largest common shorebirds, so even though they’re indistinctly marked, you can learn to quickly recognize their overall chunky shape, subdued plumage, and thick, long bill. To be absolutely sure, look for distinctive black-and-white wing markings when they take flight, and listen for the pill-will-willet call that gives them their name.