For the Birds Radio Program: Spotted Sandpiper

Original Air Date: June 22, 1988

The familiar little “teeter-tail” of shorelines is fascinating as well as common.

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(Recording of a Spotted Sandpiper)

There are eighty species of shorebirds on the official Checklist of North American Birds published by the American Ornithologists’ Union, and the most well known of all of them is the Spotted Sandpiper. The familiar little teeter-tail can be found along lakes, streams, and rivers in fresh water throughout the continent. It’s the most likely shorebird to be sitting on a pier or sandy beach in summer, and its distinctive and constant habit of bobbing its tail up and down makes identification easy even in bad light or from a distance.

Spotted Sandpipers are only spotted in spring and summer–by late summer they’re usually solid beneath. But even without their spots they can be recognized–they have a diagnostic white stripe before the bend of their wings in all plumages. And, most diagnostic of all, they bob their tails–day in, day out, all year. This habit has provided them with an abundance of vernacular names, like the seesaw bird, the tilt-up, and the teeter-peep.

Spotted Sandpipers have another distinctive habit—they fly with their wings held stiffly down-curved, vibrating in a shallow arc rather than actually beating. They often call out their “peet-weet” call when they take off.

(Recording of a Spotted Sandpiper)

Although Spotted Sandpipers are very common, people often don’t realize just how interesting this species is. For one thing, the females are larger and more aggressive than the males, and the females have more and darker spots than the males. Both sexes incubate and care for the young, but the males do the majority of that work while the females spend a greater proportion of their time displaying and defending their territories.

Spotted Sandpipers are perfectly capable swimmers from the time they hatch. They’ve been recorded diving into the water from the air to escape hawks. They’re also capable of perching in trees and on wires. And although they spend most of their lives near shore, they do visit cultivated fields enough to eat an abundance of crickets, grasshoppers, cutworms, beetles, and other agricultural pests. And they aren’t above eating a few army worms, either. In the water, they eat small fish and a large variety of crustaceans.

In 1898, an ornithologist reported seeing a Spotted Sandpiper save one of its young from danger by carrying it off between its thighs. That behavior hasn’t been reported by an authority ever since, and so ornithologists are still debating whether it was possible.

Spotted Sandpipers sleep on the shore, on rocks, stumps, and logs, taking their chances that a cat, skunk, raccoon, or fox won’t pick them up before they wake. They migrate by night, too, and are sometimes killed by radio and TV towers. By day they’re eaten by falcons and hawks. There are reports of them drowning when mussels grabbed them by the foot and held fast, and reports of them flying into guy wires, which are pretty much invisible to birds even in the light of day. All in all, we’re lucky to live in a world that has any Spotted Sandpipers at all.

(Recording of a Spotted Sandpiper)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”