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Understanding Yellowlegs


Understanding Yellowlegs

By Lisa Hag

Fall is the season for southward bird migration. The breeding season is wrapping up and it’s time for many bird species to leave the nesting areas of the north for rich feeding grounds of the tropical latitudes. And, some birds take it to the extreme and migrate from the Arctic and Subarctic regions of Alaska and Canada and fill all the latitudes right down to the Tierra del Fuego – the very southern tip of South America. 

Two species that make this extraordinary journey are the Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs. Except for their dazzlingly bright, long, yellow legs; they are subtle shades of gray, black and white. Superficially, these two species look identical. However, the Greater Yellowlegs is larger (about 14 inches) with a longer bill. The Lesser Yellowlegs is smaller (about 10.5 inches) with a more delicate build, and a proportionately shorter and thinner bill.

These inconspicuous shorebirds inhabit mudflats and marshes here in Sonoma County. They spend most of their time feeding on invertebrates that they find in the muddy ground – crustaceans, beetle larvae, worms, flies and sometimes they catch small fishes in shallow ponds. They need all the food they can get in order to make their long-distance journeys.

Both species of Yellowlegs are delightful to watch because they are more active than most shorebirds. The Greater Yellowlegs will often run in shallow water and scare up small fish that it catches with its bill. It will even swim at times. The Lesser Yellowlegs is more likely to run on the mud, catching flies and other insects.

On the breeding grounds (the Subarctic taiga), the male Yellowlegs will stand on treetops and sing long warbling songs. The males also do aerial displays to attract and impress females. They dip and flutter and rise and fly in circles – singing all the while. The females watch from the ground and decide if the display is good enough for the male to be the father of her offspring. When the male Greater Yellowlegs decides to come down to earth, he will run around the female in circles a few times and let her decide if he is doing it right. If all goes well, she concedes to letting him mate with here. When the Lesser Yellowlegs comes down to the ground, he follows the female around for a few minutes until she decides whether he is a worthy mate or not.

Within a few days of mating, the female proceeds to lay about four eggs. Both parents take turns brooding the eggs. Within a few hours of the eggs hatching, the chicks are dry and walking around on their own. They can even catch their own food. But, they will have to find their own way back to Sonoma County. By the time they are mature enough to make the journey, both parents will have already left the area. Somehow, they just know where to go.

Unless your backyard is a marsh, you are unlikely to see either species of Yellowlegs from your living room window. However, it is worth a trip to a wetland to see these wonderful birds. The most reliable and accessible place to view Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs in Sonoma County is Shollenberger Park on South MacDowell Avenue in Petaluma.