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Greater Yellowlegs Life History



During migration and throughout the winter, Greater Yellowlegs use a wide variety of fresh and brackish wetlands, including mudflats, marshes, lake and pond edges, wet meadows, sewage ponds, and flooded agricultural fields such as rice paddies. In the breeding season, they seek out boreal wetlands, wet meadows, and sedgelands, typically with many small ponds or lakes and scattered shrubs or small trees including gale, dwarf birch, pine, and willow. After the young hatch, adults lead them to shallow ponds with grasses, sedges, and shrubs.

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Aquatic invertebrates

The species eats primarily aquatic invertebrates, but will take items as large as small frogs and fish if they can catch them. Prey is captured in shallow water by swift stabs at the surface.

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Nest Placement


The Greater Yellowlegs nests on the ground often at the base of short, coniferous trees. Nests from the previous year are occasionally reused in subsequent years.

Nest Description

The nest is a simple depression in the moss or peat, sometimes lined with leaves and lichen. The finished nest is about 6 inches across and the inner cup is about an inch deep.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:3-4 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:1.7-2.1 in (4.4-5.4 cm)
Egg Width:1.2-1.4 in (3.1-3.5 cm)
Incubation Period:23 days
Egg Description:

Gray to brown with dark markings.

Condition at Hatching:

Downy and able to walk. Young leave nest a few hours after hatching and feed themselves.

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The Greater Yellowlegs walks with a distinctive high-stepping gait across wetlands when foraging, occasionally dashing forward in pursuit of a prey item. Compared to other shorebirds, the Greater Yellowlegs is often rather solitary. In migration they may associate with other individuals but these groups are loose, and rarely interact beyond traveling together. At night, however, they roost in fairly dense flocks with other shorebird species. Courting males perform an elaborate display, a coasting dive accompanied by an insistent tuu-whee tuu-whee song. The male then lands and runs in circles around the female and poses with upraised wings before mating.

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Low Concern

Greater Yellowlegs populations seem to have been stable over the last half-century, although their northerly breeding range makes them difficult to assess with projects like the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global population of 140,000 and gives the species a Continental Concern Score of 11 out of 20, indicating it is not on the Watch List and is a species of low conservation concern. Prior to the introduction of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Greater Yellowlegs were regularly hunted in great numbers, with some hunters taking hundreds of individuals in a season. Today, hunting in mainland North America is not a problem, but in parts of the Caribbean, hunters still shoot thousands of migrating shorebirds, including Greater Yellowlegs, every year. The current primary threat to Greater Yellowlegs is continued loss of wetland habitat in the wintering range, though detecting declines is difficult because the species uses many different types of wetland habitats rather than congregating at a few major staging or stopover sites.

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Andres, B. A., P. A. Smith, R. I. G. Morrison, C. L. Gratto-Trevor, S. C. Brown, and C. A. Friis (2012). Population estimates of North American shorebirds, 2012. Wader Study Group Bulletin 119:178–194.

Elphick, Chris S. and T. Lee Tibbitts. (1998). Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. (2014). The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, J. E. Fallon, K. L. Pardieck, Jr. Ziolkowski, D. J. and W. A. Link. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2013 (Version 1.30.15). USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center (2014b). Available from

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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