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Red Phalarope Life History



Red Phalaropes breed across the Arctic. They winter at sea in the open ocean, where they are most common in the Atlantic in the currents along the west coast of Africa from Morocco to Namibia. They’re also found in the Pacific in similar currents off California and Peru.

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Aquatic invertebrates

On breeding grounds, Red Phalaropes eat mostly marsh insects such as midges and cranefly larvae, often foraging in shallower water than Red-necked Phalaropes. At sea, they eat mainly zooplankton including copepods and amphipods, as well as fish eggs and larvae.

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Nest Placement


Both sexes help choose a nest site on flat tundra, often amid sedges with vegetation that can be pulled over the nest to conceal it.

Nest Description

The nest is a scrape in the bare ground; after the first egg is laid, the male may throw nearby pieces of grass, sedge, willow, lichens, feathers, or stones onto the nest.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:1-4 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:1.1-1.3 in (2.9-3.4 cm)
Egg Width:0.8-0.9 in (2.1-2.4 cm)
Incubation Period:17-26 days
Egg Description:

Olive-buff to green, speckled with black, brown, and pale purple.

Condition at Hatching:

Covered in tawny or buffy down with black stripes on the back; ready to leave the nest.

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On breeding grounds, Red Phalaropes often feed by wading, picking prey items like other shorebirds. In deeper water and at sea they feed while sitting on the surface, either by drifting with the current or by spinning in circles to bring food to the surface. In late summer, Red Phalaropes often flock around bowhead whales or gray whales to feed on crustaceans stirred up as the big mammals feed along the bottom. They sometimes feed alongside walruses and ringed seals in the same manner. As with other phalaropes, females fight over males and then leave them to incubate the eggs and raise the young, while the females pursue other mates.

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Low Concern

As a bird that breeds in the high Arctic and winters out to sea, it’s hard to be sure of Red Phalarope numbers and population trends. Individual studies indicate fairly steep declines since the mid-twentieth century in areas including the Gulf of Mexico, Canadian Arctic, Iceland, and northeast Greenland. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 2.2 million individuals. The species scores a 12 out of 20 on the Conservation Concern Score, meaning it is not on the Partners in Flight Watch List and is a species of low conservation concern. As a surface-feeding species of ocean waters, Red Phalaropes are vulnerable to oil spills. They are also prone to picking up plastic: two studies in the early 2000s found that 69% to 100% of Red Phalaropes had plastic in their stomachs.

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Mullarney, K., L. Svensson, D. Zetterström, and P. Grant (1999). Collins Bird Guide. HarperCollins Publications Ltd., London, United Kingdom.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

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

Tracy, Diane M., Douglas Schamel and James Dale. (2002). Red Phalarope (Phalaropus fulicarius), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

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Learn more at Birds of the World