Wonderful Willets -June 2018

A Shorebird Comeback

by: Virginia Andrews

A medium-sized shorebird with modest, almost non-descript brown plumage, a Willet wading peacefully about its business might be easy to overlook. But if a hawk, person, dog, crow or other intruder comes too near, the response is immediate and impossible to ignore:


It is more like a piercing shout than a call. As it rings loudly over the marsh, there is nothing modest about it. When more than one bird gets into the act, the cacophony is positively deafening. Disturbed birds circle and circle in the air, brown wings flashing with a broad white stripe, calling and calling and calling some more. Sometimes one will perch on a convenient post and simply stand, regardless of people nearby, laying down the law for all to hear.

This is what ornithologists call a distraction display. Parent birds not only alert the young to stay hidden and warn all the neighbors, they also try to draw predators away from nests or young. They will keep up the screaming until the intruder retreats. Even John James Audubon was im-

pressed by the Willets’ vociferous response. So it is appropriate that they are named for their call, rather than some obscure plumage detail, unlike many North American birds.

Although well-known to Native Americans, many species unfamiliar to Europeans were discovered by early explorers who sent specimens back to their patrons at home, who in turn claimed credit for the discovery. They assigned many of the names used today, including a binomial Latin name. These in turn are revised as DNA and behavioral studies change our perspective on the species and its relationship to others closely related. Willets used to be in their own monotypic genus but are now shown to be related to the Lesser Yellowlegs. To science, Willets are now Tringa semipalmata. But the common name, Willet, is actually connected to observable behavior, as anyone walking by can experience.

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