Living Bird Magazine
- ORDER: Charadriiformes
- FAMILY: Scolopacidae
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.More ID Info
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.
- Playero Aliblanco (Spanish)
- Chevalier semipalmé (French)
- Cool Facts
- Although both parents incubate the eggs, only the male Willet spends the night on the nest.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The oldest known Willet in North America was a female and banded in Oregon. She was at least 10 years, 3 months old when she was found in California.