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Short-billed Dowitcher Life History



Short-billed Dowitchers breed in the taiga shield ecotone, where northern trees such as spruce, tamarack, or birch become stunted or absent as the boreal forest gives way to arctic tundra. They nest in wetlands, often near the edges of bogs (muskegs), small lakes, or wet meadows with willows and alders. Some also nest in river floodplains. Wintering Short-billed Dowitchers are most common in saltwater and brackish environments (in contrast to Long-billed, which prefer freshwater), especially estuaries and lagoons with tidal activity and abundant shallows for feeding. In the tropics, they often feed in mangrove swamps and in manmade ponds used for salt production or shrimp farming. Migrants are opportunistic in their choice of habitat, turning up in manmade environments such as impoundments, sewage ponds, and flooded farm fields as well as in muddy margins of rivers, lakes, and bays. Migrants also rest on rocky and sandy shorelines and occasionally feed in such places, but they forage mostly where there is a fine muddy bottom covered by a few inches of water.

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Aquatic invertebrates

Short-billed Dowitchers restlessly probe muddy substrates with the bill held vertically, in search of buried invertebrate, especially marine worms, mollusks (small clams), crustaceans (fiddler crab, shrimp), and isopods and amphipods of various kinds. In spring, they also eat the eggs of horseshoe crab, which they glean from beaches and beach debris. When feeding, they walk forward, then probe different areas by swiveling the body in place before continuing forward. Flocks feed together with little or no aggression toward flockmates or other shorebirds. When they detect prey beneath the mud, dowitchers consume it immediately with the exception of larger worms, which they pull from the burrow and consume above the water. Breeding dowitchers feed on a great variety of insect life, especially larvae, including beetles, flies, mosquitoes, and midges, as well as on spiders and snails; some of these they glean from plants or pick from the water’s surface. Plant matter such as tubers and seeds forms a minor part of the diet.

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Nest Placement


Nests are set in wet meadows at or near treeline, usually well away from the edge of a water body. Nest sites usually have an abundance of sedge or cotton grass as well as small trees or shrubs such as spruce, rhododendron, or willow. The female selects the nest site, probably from several options offered by the male.

Nest Description

Nests are depressions made by the male, using his belly to form a bowl in heavy vegetation such as sedge. He lines the nest with feathers, dry grasses, twigs, and other plant matter. The nests are usually well hidden by vegetation. Nests average about 4.5 inches across and 2 inches tall.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:4 eggs
Egg Description:Light greenish-brown or live green with brown spotting of various intensity, always denser at the large end.
Condition at Hatching:Downy chicks able to walk immediately, can swim as soon as they are dry. Leave nest when all are hatched. Not fed by parents.
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Short-billed Dowitchers arrive on the breeding grounds unpaired, and males seek to establish breeding territories as soon as snow and ice have melted. They perform energetic song-flights and call while perched in small trees. Females or other males sometimes join a displaying male in flight. Once mated, dowitchers appear to be monogamous, the male and female staying close together. If a rival male appears, the male chases him in flight or charges him on foot, with his head and bill lowered and his tail raised, giving low warning calls. Both adults incubate the eggs, but females depart once the eggs hatch, leaving the chicks in care of the male. In flocks, as well as among other shorebird species, dowitchers are peaceable, showing little inclination toward the kind of aggression or territoriality that is common in smaller sandpipers. Migrating flocks regularly forage and fly with other shorebird species such as Black-bellied Plovers, Whimbrel, Red Knot, and Ruddy Turnstones.

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Short-billed Dowitcher populations declined between 15% and 50% from 1970 to 2015, according to estimates by Partners in Flight. The group estimates the global breeding population at 150,000 individuals. The species rates a 14 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and is on the Yellow Watch List because of its declining populations. Threats include hunting on the wintering grounds, loss of stopover and wintering habitat to development and sea level rise, and changes to breeding habitat resulting from climate change.

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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.

Jehl Jr., Joseph R., Joanna Klima and Ross E. Harris. (2001). Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A., and A. S. Love (2017). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2017.1. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory, Laurel, MD, USA.

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.

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